Wednesday 28 August 2013

Martin Luther King today

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most inspiring pieces of rhetoric ever.

Injustice - what we more often call inequality these days - still withers. You can see it in communities throughout the country, where rich are separated from poor, and the poor lose all their aspiration, all their hope and all the possibility that their lives held when they were born. Inequality begets a lack of freedom which should concern every Liberal Democrat.

Rhetoric does not do well nowadays. There are two reasons for that. The first is that rhetoric itself withers in the age of the sound bite. Politicians are deeply and carefully controlled to stay on message because one word out of place could be misinterpreted. Risk aversity and the news cycle have conquered language. Everything has to fit into the news cycle and everything has to be tailored to a story structure that allows no more than a few seconds for each vapid comment. Set piece political speeches commit linguistic torture on English speech, written in sound bites, printed on the page one verbless sound bite. per paragraph in case the reader mixes them up.  The one thing Boris Johnson is good for is showing that the English language can still be used in meaningful, flowing sentences. If only others would follow his suit.

The second is that our society is less unequal than it used to be (though much more unequal than we like to think). Many would say that the great battles have been fought and won. People are no longer barred from voting because of their skin colour, people are no longer routinely lynched because of their skin colour, freedom is something that most of us can taste, though far more of us cannot than we are led to believe. There appears to be no need for rhetoric because we are persuaded that there is nothing wrong with the system we live in. But there is still plenty wrong, plenty wrong.

The need is still there, though it is shrouded over by the media trope of covering issues with stories about individual people. We are presented daily with a country in which whatever poverty, misery, destitution people have fallen into is seen as being their own fault, for being lazy or addicted. Every time we mention poverty, the right wing show a picture of children eating fast food in front of a 40” TV. Every time we mention hopelessness, they show a picture of a drug dealer. They never bother to go looking for the other side, the deep misery that we keep so many people in. They never go looking for the poison that Iain Duncan Smith is instilling in our benefit system; they never go looking for the places where the CAB issues printed instructions on what to do if you have no food and no cash; they never go looking in the hospital beds where disabled people are recovering from being beaten up for the horrible crime of being disabled; they never go looking on our streets for the daily casual sexism that sees women treated like objects (and it is still far too often the case that if she is raped she is believed to have asked for it). Such inattention seeps into every part of our lives. We slaughter over a thousand people on our roads every year. Every single one of those deaths is avoidable, most are associated with excessive speed, yet we still defend our right to break speeding laws. See the comments here.

But I suggest it is not the fault of the media; it is the fault of us as comfortable and hence not curious citizens. We don't press the media hard enough to tell us the real story. We condemn the various tabloids for their various excesses, and we go on buying them.

I saw the film Downfall when it was first released in this country. It centres on the character of Traudle Junge who was Hitler's secretary in the last two years of his life. There is a stroke of cinematic genius at the end. We have just had three unrelenting hours of blood, murder, destruction, gore, viciousness and fascism. The screen goes black, the soundtrack falls silent and we see a few simple words (I forget the exact phrase) “Germany surrendered on 8th May 1945”. The exhausted audience are picking up their coats, checking for their keys, looking at their neighbour and saying “Wow”. Then suddenly the screen picks up again, and we see the real Traudle Junge, as she was interviewed in a documentary near the end of her life. Like many, she was categorised after the war as a “young follower”, in other words not really a Nazi, just too young to understand the difference. That was a convenient way of getting Germany back on to its feet so that it could join in the next war, against Communism. She says (again I do not remember the exact words), “Afterwards we found out about the concentration camps, and the terrible things that were done. I was able to persuade myself that it wasn't my fault, that I did not know and there was nothing I could have done. But one day I was walking down (a street) and I came upon a memorial to Sophie Scholl (Sophie Scholl was executed by the Nazis on 22 Feb 1943 for distributing dissident literature). I saw that she was executed in the year that I began working for Hitler. And I saw that she was born in the same year I was. Then I realised that being young was no excuse, that I could have tried to find out.”  Nothing else is said. The film ends. That last sentence hits you right between the eyes and is left to linger in your mind as the credits roll.

The same is true for us today. We seem to need rhetoric of the calibre of Martin Luther King's to open our eyes and ears, to remind us of these truths, and our lives are the poorer without it. We live in the sixth largest economy in the world, one big enough to ensure that nobody goes in want of the material things they need to buttress their freedom, but it is an economy that is so unequal that many of our fellow citizens are not free. Most of us will do just fine without opening our eyes to the truth around us. But it is not enough to be comfortable, we must always seek the truth behind the newspaper headlines and the sound bite politics.

Friday 23 August 2013

England v Australia women's ODIs

I was very surprised at how small the crowd was for the England Australia women's one day game at Hove. Five pounds a ticket for a day's really good cricket. For anyone who is free on Sunday I suggest it will be a very good investment.

All these empty seats are people missing a treat today. Excellent cricket all round and an England win, which added spice to it. The series is level now, so all to play for.

England batting solidly, ending on 256. The highest score was Charlotte Edwards 53. Several batters made decent scores but none pushed on to a really big one, and I wondered if that would come back to bite us.

Seagull time as England put the stranglers on Australia. I think a lot of people would not have "got" the afternoon session, with all the emphasis on big hitting nowadays bang bang bang. But watching the England attack slowly squeeze the life out of the Australian innings was fascinating, a really good example of how to sustain pressure and work on the batters' nerves till they get themselves out by overreaching.

 It's a very different atmosphere to the men's game. Quite interesting seeing apple shaped women carrying several pints of beer rather than apple shaped men carrying several pints of beer. Then trying the dodgy burgers and dying a horrible death on the way back to their seats. They don't have the pathogen resistant intestines the apple shaped men have developed over decades of eating fast food. But ignore all that - it was an excellent day's cricket.

Sunday 11 August 2013


A friend recently posted a Facebook update, as she often does, about what she was cooking. It was moussaka and it included potatoes. I replied firmly that a moussaka cannot have potatoes in it. She replied with the BBC recipe from which she got it. I was not prepared to take the BBC as authoritative (on more or less any topic these days), so I held my ground and we had a bit of an exchange about it. Various other people weighed in, including one who made the point that recipes do develop over time. Which I knew to be true. And, to be honest, it has always been a slight surprise to me that what I regard as authentic moussaka has rice with it. Not chips, although they serve that now in most Greek resort centres. Ugh.

Anyway, I decided to research it, and rapidly discovered, to my surprise, that moussaka is a relatively modern invention. And an actual invention. I found several sources for this, but the best in my view is this feature in The Atlantic. It revolves around Nicholas Tselementes, a Greek chef of the early twentieth century, who had considerable international experience. He thought that Greek cooking had become too Turkish during the long period of Turkish occupation, and he set out to de-Ottomanise it. The moussaka that we know today was part of his response. He took out a lot of the spiciness, and incorporated a certain amount of French influence (though not garlic, which he apparently despised). His cookbook, published in the 1920s, contained recipes from many places, and those he considered to be the important Greek ones. He has a whole chapter on moussaka, and includes a number of variants, including moussaka cooked with courgettes or artichokes or..... potatoes (the horror, the horror).

So I sit corrected on the topic of potatoes in moussaka. And as was said in the Facebook conversation, cooking does develop, in this case quite deliberately. I know that: I'm English. Our national dish (apart from curry and pizza - enough said) is fish and chips. Chips from America; battered fish brought here by Jewish refugees in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. And the moussaka that we know today is a multicultural, though primarily European, melange. So I will accept that moussaka can be made with potatoes.

The next issue is the rice, which to me always felt a bit Middle Eastern, rather than Balkan. Again, I'm wrong in terms of cultivation and usage. Rice has been cultivated in Greece since at least classical times. Definitely pre-Ottoman.

Despite my discoveries I will stick to my idea of what a proper moussaka is, for primarily personal reasons. When I thought about it after discovering Tselementes, I realised that for me moussaka is not a recipe but an experience. In my secondary years and at university I studied classics. I learned Greek. I enjoyed Greek stuff. I enjoyed particularly the discovery of the Kebab Cellar in Cambridge (sadly no longer there). And I enjoyed going to Greece, allegedly to study the monuments. Moussaka for me is about being warm and carefree, and to get that feeling it can't have potatoes in it.

It has to have a Greek salad with it. (Greek salad is any veg you like, as long as it has olives and feta cheese in it.)

It also has to have retsina with it.

Baklava afterwards is OK, but I'm not too bothered about that - I'm usually too full and too drunk by then.

And for preference to be preceded by taramasalata and pitta bread. Not hummus. (Taramasalata seems to be Greek in origin by most accounts, but the tarama... bit derives from Turkish...)

Thursday 8 August 2013

What being liberal is for

Like all activists (I suppose I can claim to be semi active), I sometimes ask myself what it is all for. You stuff envelopes, you deliver leaflets (and every time you do, you think “There must be a better design of letter box”), you talk on doorsteps, you get buckets of abuse from people who know that all disabled people are faking it and all foreigners are living in million pound mansions at our expense, and all LibDems are liars (that one's really good, coming from some of the people who say it....).

You get fed up to the back teeth trying to talk in nuances to people whose lives are constructed of binary certainties made up for them by the Daily Mail. Britain good EU bad. White good immigrant bad. Hard working families good claimants bad. (Have you noticed how there seems to be no such thing as a hard working single person?)

You get conference papers and the motions have been earnestly constructed by Rubik's cube experts on speed. You keep doing it while people's jobs, hopes, lives remain miserable. Progress is very incremental, very gradual, sometimes we seem to be taking several steps back for each one forward, and then somebody else comes along and says we ought to be going sideways....

But just occasionally something happens that reminds you. This is one such thing. It didn't happen here, it happened in the USA, in Minnesota to be exact. But liberalism is global. “75 Unforgettable Moments From Minnesota’s First Day Of Marriage Equality” (hat tip to Jess Brammer). This is what being liberal is for. (I don't mind admitting I started crying around photo 6, and didn't stop till well after the end.)

Thursday 1 August 2013

The discourse of security questions

I had to fill in a whole new set of security thingies for a well known online credit card company. (Why?) Included in it were three security questions from a limited list. I've often felt a slight sense of dis-ease when doing things like this before, and today it suddenly struck me why. I did not have the happiest of childhoods. No abuse, not poor, nothing like that, just not happy, for a variety of reasons. And I prefer to forget the place where I was born, the first pet I had, what my mother's maiden name was. But nearly all the questions available pull me back to that time in such a way that you wonder if the people who choose these questions all had a Walton style upbringing (and are the kind of people who look back on their schooldays as the happiest days of their life, the poor disappointed souls). I wonder how many other people who are forced to choose from these daft questions feel the same. It's  almost worth researching, but I bet there's already a PhD somewhere on the discourses identifiable in security questions. In the end I told the truth:
Q: Place I was born A: I prefer to forget
Q: First teacher's name A: I really couldn't give a stuff
Q: First pet A: what business is it of yours?*

*No, I'm not so stupid as to tell you my real security questions.These are a simulacrum.