Friday 27 July 2012


The British have never been known for their sensitivity to issues of ethnicity or nationality. This week has already seen excruciating blunders by the organisers of the Olympics. 

Joe Allen, a footballer from Wales playing for Britain, suffered the ultimate insult of being described as an Englishman in the programme. He then refused to sing the UK National Anthem (composed by Henry Carey, a paranoid 18th-century songwriter who subsequently committed suicide). The North Korean women’s football team walked off the pitch in Glasgow after the big screens displayed the flag of South Korea, with which nation North Korea is still officially at war, since no treaty was ever signed after the 1953 armistice.

Westfield Shopping Centre
But the most embarrassing debacles have been over security signs and ‘welcome’ signs in Arabic printed backwards. Several important rail stations, including King’s Cross and St Pancras International, displayed notices in this bizarre inverted script warning travellers not to leave baggage unattended. And Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, London, which is at the epicentre of Olympics activity, hailed Arabic speakers with the equivalent of NODNOLOTEMOCLEW (‘Welcome to London’) blazoned across banners and on the T-shirts of the mall staff.

'Jabberwocky' as written by the 2012 Olympics organisers
Some people customarily write or speak backwards, either because they are geniuses (Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart) or because they have a learning difficulty. In the inverted world of Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1871), the book in which the ‘Jabberwocky’ poem is inscribed is, of course, in mirror-writing.

Right-to-left inscription, on 'Nestor's Cup (Cumae,8th-c. BCE)
So just for a minute, let us try giving the benefit of the doubt to the administrators responsible for not being able to locate a single Arabic-speaking Briton (there are about a million of them) to check these signs. In archaic Greece, for example, you could write backwards or even backwards and forwards (‘ox-track’ writing, boustrophedon, like cattle ploughing a field). Perhaps the backwards Arabic is a coy reference to the origins of the Olympics?

But the most charitable explanation is that the signs are a covert invitation to all Arabic speakers to try the revolutionary new sport of running backwards, which I am about to take up. 

The world champion is Garret Doherty, 33, from Dublin in Ireland, who, astonishingly, can run a seven-minute mile backwards and has recently won the world championship for the third time in succession.

Garret says: 'Backwards running is like a drug — once you start, you’ll never want to run forwards again. It’s truly liberating, and there are enormous health benefits.'

In preparation for taking up my new sport, I have consulted the website at  But it advises that the first step is to ‘FIND A PARTNER. If you struggle to find anywhere suitable, then run with a partner and take turns to run backwards.’ 

Is there anyone out there willing to share my new hobby with me?  At next year’s championships we can substitute for the dreadful National Anthem the far superior Goons’ song, “I’m walking backwards for Christmas, across the Irish Sea” (lyrics available at

Saturday 21 July 2012

Deaths of Damascene Despots

Djemal Pasha, Butcher of Damascus
Today marks a curious anniversary. It was on 21st July 1922, exactly ninety years ago, that Djemal Pasha, known as a-Saffah (“The Butcher”), the Damascus-based Ottoman governor of Syria, was assassinated by an Armenian. Djemal had it coming. He had played a leading role in the genocide of Armenians, and brutally liquidated many dissident Christians, Shi’a Muslims and Lebanese. 

On 21st July 2012, Djemal’s spiritual descendant Bashar al-Assad, who is said still to be lurking in Damascus, must be concerned that the violent deaths this week of four of his closest “senior management team” herald his own.  
Antigonus the One-Eyed in Alexander
Al-Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist, would presumably take a professional interest in my favourite despot of Damascus, “Antigonus the One-Eyed”.  This Macedonian Cyclops was Alexander the Great’s toughest general and very nearly succeeded in uniting the Macedonian empire during the wars of the Successors.   

He was enormously tall and scarred as well as monocular (much more scarey than Ian Beattie portrayed him in Oliver Stone's 2004 movie). His mistake was to have the honesty to adopt the title of King (Basileus) when the other Successors were creepily saying that they only wanted to rule vicariously in the deceased Alexander’s name. This frank acknowledgement of his own power meant that Antigonus had to keep on waging war, and he died in battle IN HIS SEVENTIES!

Khālid ibn al-Walīd, Wine-Hygienist
Nor did the far-famed Khālid ibn al-Walīd, Companion of Muhammad, conqueror of Damascus in 634, get the death he wanted. Pockmarked, big-bearded, and a champion wrestler, he only bathed in alcohol (although insisting to other Muslims that he never drank it). He remained undefeated in more than a hundred mighty battles. But his sad last words regretted his tame demise: “I've fought in so many battles seeking martyrdom that there is no spot in my body left without a scar or a wound made by a spear or sword. And yet here I am, dying on my own bed like an old camel.”
Until al-Assad lost the plot, however, the prize for most bloodthirsty ruler of Damascus should perhaps have gone to “Timur the Lame” (aka Tamberlaine the Great).  He enslaved half the population, deported the skilled artisans to Samarkand, and murdered all the rest, piling their heads up in a field in the north-east of Damascus. The name of the place is still “Tower of Heads” (Burj al ru'us). Christopher Marlowe imagined what this Turkic megalomaniac looked like when annoyed: 

   Upon his brows was portrayed ugly death,
   And in his eyes the fury of his heart,
   That shine as comets, menacing revenge.

But Tamberlaine was cheated of a glorious exit from this life, freezing to death on a campaign for the Emperor of China which he had rashly undertaken in winter.  

The current Despot of Damascus also sucks up to China. But given the climate of Syria he is unlikely to freeze to death. He is also increasingly unlikely to die anywhere as late as his seventies or at home in peaceful old age. My personal preference would be to have him made to account for the deaths of his people on trial in the International Criminal Court in the Hague. But assassination, the fate which befell his predecessor Djemal Pasha nine decades ago to the very day, can scarcely be off the cards.

Sunday 15 July 2012

On Foul-Mouthed Footballers

England's Finest
In the UK it has been a sad week for models of manhood. The captain of Chelsea Football Team, and erstwhile captain of England, was filmed calling a professional colleague with darker skin than his a “fucking black cunt”. But John Terry’s outburst has this week been officially judged not to count legally as a use of “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress” in which “the offence was racially aggravated”. Beyond belief.
Catullus, Expert at Homosocial Insults
In Regina vs. Terry, the she-monarch whose name rhymes with "vagina" as well as "angina", lost her case. I wonder if she objected, as did all the women I discussed it with yesterday, to the lack of public outcry against Terry’s use of the horribly misogynist word for the elastic fibromuscular tube connecting a woman’s womb with the outside world.  While Lisa Brown was recently banned from addressing the Michigan House of Representatives for using the less ideologically laden term "vagina", it is apparently fine for a world-famous Centre Back, who also happens to be the father of 6-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, to scream "cunt" viciously on TV screens across the world.   

 Lampard coaches Terry in Latin Slang
Why does the birth canal supply the English language with by far its worst swear word? Terry's other term "Knobhead" sounds so wholesome and jolly in comparison.

Perhaps one solution would be for Terry to take more lessons in swearing from his Chelsea vice-captain, Frank Lampard, a talented Latinist who scored an A* in the ancient language at GCSE. How much more fitting for the homosocial world of football for Terry to hurl threats at his colleagues like "pedicabo vos et irrumabo", "I will bugger and facefuck" you, as Catullus threatens two of his male acquaintances in his 16th poem. 

Or if Terry really wants racist abuse, how about St. Jerome’s verbal assault on the British heretic Pelagius, whom he addressed as a "slanty-head" and a "fat mountain hound"  who was "weighed down with Scottish porridge" (Scotiis pultibus pregravatus). [Actually, Pelagius was an ascetic whose worst crime was to believe in free will].

The one illumination I have experienced this week was learning about the application of the term "choc-ice" by some black people to another who colludes with white power—however dark his or her skin, the "choc-ice" is effectively white inside. 

Pelagius, "Scottish porridge-eater"
A classical scholar I know, ostensibly a flirtatious female, was persuaded in the 1980s by some male dons at Oxford University to argue AGAINST the provision of childcare for staff. As Madeleine Albright said, there is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women in public life. 

What I want is a term which with equal economy and pungency as "choc-ice" describes women who suck up to men and collaborate with them against other women—pink on the outside but blue on the inside. "Feminine cryptophallocrats" doesn’t really roll off the tongue. We need this word to describe the WAGS, the women who fight each other for the right to prostitute themselves with overpaid footballers. Suggestions welcome.

Saturday 7 July 2012

On Repatriation

My Local 'Repatriation Facility'
Every weekend when I visit our nearest Co-op superstore I dread driving past the signs which read ‘REPATRIATION PARKING’.  The store is in Carterton, adjacent to RAF Brize Norton, where the bodies of UK armed forces killed in Afghanistan arrive by military plane all too regularly.

It is difficult to focus on the grocery shopping after driving past these signs. I can never get out of my head the awful lyrics in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon when the chorus express the anger the Greeks felt at the ‘repatriation ceremonies’ held for the ‘fallen’ of the Trojan War:

Ares the war god trades corpses for gold.                            
He holds the scales of battle
and sends the heavy dust                                                                                                         
from the funeral pyres
back to loved ones to lament.
Attractive pots crammed with ash
take the place of men.

Three days ago (5th July), the cadavers of Warrant Officer Class 2 Leonard Thomas (44), Guardsman Craig Roderick (22), and Guardsman Apete Tuisovurua (28) were received at Brize Norton by their families. They were then driven via the bleak route following barbed-wire perimeter fencing and grey housing estates to the A40 and eastward to the Oxford hospital in which my own children were born and in which the military's post-mortems are conducted.

The corpse of Ajax, the suicidal warrior, grieved over by his family
The pointlessness of the entire Iraq /Afghanistan military misadventure has been recently underlined by the revelation on June 8 that more US combatants are now committing suicide than are being killed on active duty. It is not just the ‘War on Terror’ that makes soldiers kill themselves, either: the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War this year brought to light the horrendous statistic that more British Falklands veterans have committed suicide than there were servicemen killed in action.

Athenian Soldier's Grave, 330BCE
I am not a pacifist. I would use violence to defend my family any day. Even modern states need to protect their borders and airspaces; they need trained personnel to mobilise in case of emergency. But the practicality as well as the morality of maintaining large forces in readiness for inter-state conflict must now be questioned. Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker argue that war as it has been understood for centuries, especially when the motive is conquest or not even comprehended by the inhabitants of the nations in question, is obviously obsolete. War is not even as economically advantageous as in the past since it demonstrably damages more trade than it sustains. 

The suicide rates amongst the armed forces now prove that war also needs to come with a mental health warning. The tragedian Euripides knew what he was doing when he makes his superhero Heracles return from sustained deeds of violent aggression to murder his own wife and children. Heracles' human father, Amphitryon, understood what had gone wrong: ‘My son, what do you intend by this? What dreadful  acts are these? "Can it be that it is the blood of your previous victims which has driven you so frantic?"