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Monday, 31 October 2005
Waiting for the Barbarians

Queen Victoria

This is the statue of Queen Victoria, outside Windsor Castle.

Waiting for the Barbarians is the name of a poem by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1864-1933). The Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 2003, the South African born JM Coetzee, used the title of the poem as the title of a book he published in 1980.  The book is a critique of apartheid, and Amazon describes it thus:

For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire, whose servant he is. But when the interrogation experts arrive, he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and into a quixotic act of rebellion which lands him in prison, branded as an enemy of the state. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegory of oppressor and oppressed. Not just a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times, the Magistrate is an analogue of all men living in complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency.

Morris Berman, author of the book The Twilight of American Culture writing in The Guardian shortly after the September 2001 attacks on New York drew a chilling parallel between the Roman Empire and the United States of America.

Recently Coetzee (who emigrated to Australia in 2002) spoke out against the proposed anti-terror laws proposed by various western governments:

“I used to think that the people who created (South Africa’s) laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians,” Coetzee was quoted as saying.

“Now I know they were just pioneers ahead of their time.”

Preparing to read from his 1980 anti-apartheid novel “Waiting for the Barbarians”, Coetzee said South African security police in the 1970s could arrest and detain people without explanation “and do what they wanted” with them “because special provisions of the legislation indemnified them in advance”.

“All of this, and much more during apartheid in South Africa, was done in the name of the fight against terror,” said the 2003 Nobel laureate.

There is a good overview of JM Coetzee and his works here.  The full text of the poem Waiting for the Barbarians by Constantine Cavafy and translated by Edmund Keeley, is as follows:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

  The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

  Because the barbarians are coming today.
  What laws can the senators make now?
  Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

  Because the barbarians are coming today
  and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
  He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
  replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

  Because the barbarians are coming today
  and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

  Because the barbarians are coming today
  and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

  Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
  And some who have just returned from the border say
  there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Philip Glass has produced an Opera based on Coetzee’s book, and it premiered in Erfurt (Germany) on 10 September 2005.  JM Coetzee’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech can be read here.

Posted by bigblue on 31/10/2005 at 11:32 PM
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Sunday, 30 October 2005
n’hésitez pas!

warning notice

On Friday night Pinkie and I drove up to Nottingham, to see her friend Chris who is studying music at the Uni there.  Bluemeanie also mentions him today.  They ate supper at Wagamama, and then we dropped Chris back at his house shortly before midnight.

The centre of Nottingham seemed pretty quiet by comparison with other evenings I have been there. According to a Time Magazine article earlier this year there is a general binge drinking problem in England, and Nottingham is the drinks capital of the UK

It’s a typical Friday night in the center of Nottingham, a city of 267,000 in middle England where on weekends 50,000 people roll up to more than 350 establishments licensed to sell alcohol - all within a few blocks. Licensing authorities allow 70% of the area’s pubs, clubs and bars to serve drinks after the 11 p.m. state-mandated closing time - as late as 2 a.m. in some cases.

The article also highlights that drink affects more than just the drinkers

And drink affects more than just the drinkers. The government report estimated that alcohol-related disease or injury was responsible for 5 million emergency-room visits in England in 2000-01, up to 22,000 deaths in England and Wales in 2000 and health-care costs of about $3 billion. Around 70% of emergency-room patients in NHS hospitals on Friday and Saturday nights are treated for alcohol-related conditions. Hospitals in Cardiff and Swansea were so swamped by the intoxicated that in the weeks before Christmas [2004] they erected temporary military-style field hospitals in city centers to treat casualties on the scene.

Recently the government of the UK introduced licencing laws allowing for 24-hour public alcohol consumption, supposedly in a bid to change the culture of binge-drinking. Quite how this will work remains to be seen, given that Nottingham City Centre already enjoyed extended drinking hours, and considerable social problems as a result.  The Nottingham City Council report into making Nottingham safe is quite informative.

There are several organisations, such as apas, in Nottingham and around the country to help people who might be pissing all their money against a wall.

Posted by bigblue on 30/10/2005 at 03:45 PM
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Bird flu


With the onset of reduced daylight hours (if not winter temperatures) comes the welcome calming down of the chickens chez moi.  They become less bothersome because one sees and hears a lot less of them. I am assuming that they are still around in large numbers, but of course the farmer might have conducted a mass slaughter.

Currently it seems as if everyone is in a tizz about the potential arrival of avian bird flu in Europe. We are told that it is merely a matter of time before a pandemic hits us.  (A pandemic is a global epidemic).  However we have had numerous dire warnings of this kind in the past, and none has materialised.  Should we really panic? is the subject of the Radio 4 program The Moral Maze this Wednesday past.  The discussion and debate is available to listen to again until Wedesday 3 November 2005. The program splurb reads:

Doomsday scenarios abound.

Currently there are two - bird flu, which we’re told will remove at least 50,000 of us? and terrorism which we’re told poses the gravest threat ever faced by this country.

Earlier, there were fears over the MMR vaccine - which proved unfounded. And fears over BSE and its variant, CJD - also unfounded.

Yet the public, the media, the govenment panic - industries are depleted - millions of pounds spent - new and restrictive regulations enforced?

All this, and yet a report now claims that the world is actually a safer place than in the ‘60s.

Some are labelling this a culture of fear, a culture of fatalism. What lies behind it? Is it something to be taken seriously, and treated as a crisis in itself ?  What does it do for our sense of moral priorities?

Melanie Phillips, Professor Steven Rose, Claire Fox and Clifford Longley cross-examine expert witnesses on The Moral Maze.

There was also an interesting interview with microbiologist Hugh Pennington on the BBC World Service which sorted the facts from fiction.

Posted by bigblue on 30/10/2005 at 12:19 AM
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Saturday, 29 October 2005
Mjuk Pepparkaka

mjuk pepparkaka

Today was Dress Down Day at work, in aid of the charity Jeans for Genes, and I made the above mjuk pepparkaka (Swedish Spice Cake) to help encourage the donations.  We didn’t raise very much today, all things considering, and I am not sure that my cake helped: it didn’t come out the same as when Anna-Sophia made it.

Posted by bigblue on 29/10/2005 at 01:17 AM
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Thursday, 27 October 2005


A few weeks ago I got my (free) preview sample of Stormhoek Sauvignon Blanc 2005. I was going to have a wine-tasting session and blog about it but I have been too busy. I’m sure I will get around to it sometime but in the meantime I would like to acknowledge the bottle, with thanks.

Stormhoek’s little motto is Freshness Matters, and the back of each bottle (not the sample one however) will apparently have a little indicator (“dial”) that tells you when the wine is at its freshest, or most quaffable. Although I don’t have the dial on the back of my preview bottle I get the feeling that this is not a wine to hang on to. It is currently available in the UK supermarkets and I imagine that if you get your hands on a bottle the idea is to enjoy it pretty much as soon as possible.  The wine is from South Africa, specifically near Wellington in the Western Cape.

Wellington was where the firebrand Scots preacher Andrew Murray lived for a time. He was much loved by the Calvanist Afrikaners in South Africa and became a preacher in their conservative NGK church. The letters NGK stand for Dutch Reformed Church, but are also the name of a popular brand of spark plugs in South Africa.  The NGK (church) were the group that gave the moral and religious justification for apartheid.

Anyway, that has nothing directly to do with the Stormhoek wine.  The booklet with the wine refers to the freebie as an exercise in marketing disruption. You can read about what this means for Stormhoek over at Gapingvoid in various posts.

Posted by bigblue on 27/10/2005 at 11:34 PM
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Wednesday, 26 October 2005


This is not a very good picture of a pumpkin, no matter how I take it apart and put it together again. I still have a few days to get my act together for Halloween.

There is an interesting comment in the Salt Lake City Tribune by independent journalist Gwynne Dyer, on the Saddam Hussein trial:

If they had taken Adolf Hitler alive in 1945, they would certainly have put him on trial. But what if they had ignored Hitler’s responsibility for starting World War II and his murder of 6 million Jews, and simply put him on trial for torturing and executing a couple of hundred people whom he suspected of involvement in the July 1944 plot to kill him?
  You would find that bizarre, would you not?
  Well, Saddam Hussein’s trial started Oct. 19 and that was the sort of charge chosen by the Iraqi government and its American supervisors. After only three hours the trial was adjourned until Nov. 28, mainly because most of the witnesses were too frightened to show up, but by then the prosecution strategy was entirely clear.
  The former Iraqi dictator was not being tried for invading Iran in 1980 and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, nor for using poison gas on Iranian troops and on rebellious Kurds in Iraq itself (notably at Halabja in 1988, when at least 5,000 Iraqi Kurd civilians died). He was not facing trial for invading Kuwait in 1990, nor for slaughtering tens of thousands of Iraqi Shias in the course of putting down the revolt that followed his defeat in that war.
  He was only being tried for the deaths of 143 people from the mainly Shia town of Dujail, north of Baghdad, after an assassination attempt against him during a visit to that town in July, 1982. It was a very peculiar choice, and the explanation offered by one of the five judges on the Iraqi Special Tribunal - “The Dujail case is the easiest to put together as far as evidence-gathering and preparation is concerned, [because] there are documents that have been seized and verified concerning the case” - doesn’t hold water.
  The real problem is that the United States was closely allied to Saddam Hussein during the 1980s when he was committing the worst atrocities against the Iranians and the Kurds. At that time, the Reagan administration saw the revolutionary regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran as a far greater threat to U.S. interests, and when Saddam’s war against Iran started going badly it stepped in to save him.
  It was U.S. intelligence photos from spy satellites and AWACS reconnaissance aircraft that provided the raw information about Iranian positions, and U.S. Air Force photo interpreters seconded to Baghdad who drew Saddam the detailed maps of Iranian trenches that let him drench them in poison gas. It was the Reagan administration that stopped Congress from condemning Saddam’s use of poison gas, and that encouraged American firms and NATO allies to sell him the appropriate chemical feedstocks, plus a wide variety of other weapons.
  It was the U.S. State Department that tried to protect Saddam when he gassed his own Kurdish citizens in Halabja in 1988, spreading stories (which it knew to be false) that Iranian planes had dropped the gas. It was the U.S. that finally saved Saddam’s regime by providing escorts for tankers carrying oil from Arab Gulf states while Iraqi planes were left free to attack tankers coming from Iranian ports. Even when one of Saddam’s planes mistakenly attacked an American destroyer in 1987, killing 37 crew members, Washington forgave him. So the U.S. doesn’t want any of Saddam’s crimes that are connected with the Iran war to come up in his trial.
  Dujail, on the other hand, raises no awkward questions, so Saddam will be tried on that charge first. It is unlikely that he will ever face other charges, for the death penalty was reintroduced in Iraq last year - the first prisoners were executed just last month - and once Saddam has been condemned to death for the Dujail killings he will not live long. The new law allows him only one appeal, and after that he must be hanged within 30 days.
  Saddam could easily be convicted on the Dujail charge, exhaust his appeals and be hanged by early next year. Iraq’s Shias and Kurds will celebrate his death, but its Sunni Arabs - and a great many people elsewhere in the Arab world - will see him as a martyr to the Arab nationalist cause. He is nothing of the sort, but the hypocrisy of this trial is revolting.

I think she must be generalising that all or even most Sunni Arabs will see Saddam Hussein as a martyr to the Arab cause, but I agree that his trial has the hallmarks of a show trial. I argued back in 2003 that he should be handed over to the International Court of Justice in the Hague and I stand by that view.

Posted by bigblue on 26/10/2005 at 11:15 PM
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footy footy footy

villa park

In the true spirit of the football badgers a group of 10 of us went to watch Aston Villa beat Burnley at home tonight in front of a low-capacity crowd of some 27,000 fans.

At the end of the match the blood traitor said that she would like to buy an Aston Villa scarf ... not because it resembles the Harry Potter one (that’s Bradford isn’t it?) but because when I took her to see Leeds it let her down by losing, and she feels chuffed that Aston Villa won.

Posted by bigblue on 26/10/2005 at 12:30 AM
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Monday, 24 October 2005
viva la difference


The above two magazines were side by side on the shelf in my local supermarket. The one on the left encourages us to read about amazing diets as used by certain celebrities. The one on the right expresses concern that certain models are starving themselves. Both reflect an unhealthy obsession.

Two things interested me in this study into the hostility between the British (or English apparently) and the French.  The first is the idea that the similarities between the English and the French are a key part of the problem

“The French are a kind of sibling, cast in the same mould as us, but showing how the same genes can express themselves in alternative ways,” says Dr Wendy Michallat, an expert in popular French culture.

“Given this common background, the English, in spite of themselves, tend to give way to what Freud called ‘the narcissism of minor differences’. We make a great deal of what distinguishes us from the French, for fear of seeing our prized identity lose its uniqueness by being revealed as just another set of shared human traits”.

The second thing that interested me was that they don’t hate us as much as we hate them

Seventy-two percent of Britons questioned in a recent survey believed the French warranted their negative stereotype, while only 19% of French believe the Brits deserved their “Rosbifs” tag.

Welcome back to bluemeanie who rejoins us in blogging after an 18 month hiatus. She does so with a bang.

Posted by bigblue on 24/10/2005 at 11:51 PM
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