Thursday 23 August 2012

Crying over Spilt Blood

On Tuesday, in my neighbouring town, I drove into the field labelled ‘Repatriation Parking’. I joined the heartbreakingly small group which had assembled beside the bleak stretch of tarmac leading out from RAF Brize Norton: a few old soldiers with regimental flags, dazed young soldiers, a handful of weeping womenfolk. I was shocked at how few we were--perhaps a hundred.  No members of government or of the royal family attended.

The corpses of Lt Paul Chesterman (26), Lance Corporal Matthew Smith (26, father of four children under eight years old) and Guardsman Jamie Shadrake, who had just turned 20, were driven past one by one as we clapped slowly. They were the 423rd, 424th and 425th British service personnel to die in Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister when ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ started bombing Afghanistan in 2001 was Tony Blair.  Soon after, on 24th September 2002, Blair’s government published a 'dossier’,  making (I believe consciously and cynically) the completely false allegations that Iraq had sought ‘significant quantities of uranium from Africa’, and Saddam Hussein’s ‘military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.’ The Sun newspaper helpfully obliged by publishing bellicose rubbish under the heading 'Brits 45 minutes from Doom'.

My hero Harold Pinter said at the time that the British people were coerced by lies into following the USA to war, ‘a country run by a bunch of criminal lunatics with Tony Blair as a hired Christian thug.’

Tony Blair, for all his piety, did not come to honour the dead soldiers last Tuesday. He has been otherwise engaged, advertising his desire to re-enter British politics and ‘serve’ us as Prime Minister again. 

He looks so tense that at times I think he knows just what despair he has caused, and needs the hurly-burly of politics in order to distract himself from reflecting on what he has done. In an ancient Roman murder case, the lawyer Cicero argued that a murderer is not tortured by actual Furies with snakey hair and burning torches, but 'it is his own dishonesty and the terrors of his own conscience that especially harass each individual; his own wickedness drives the criminal about and affects him with madness; his own evil thoughts, his own evil conscience terrifies him.' But Cicero's belief in the inevitability of killers suffering from a bad conscience may constitute an optimistically charitable reading of the increasingly mad glint in Blair the Liar's eyes.

His re-election must not happen. Blair has blood on his hands. As Voltaire said: ‘It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.’  

Blair may never be appropriately punished for his warmongering and ruthless mendacity. But at least we can vote to stop him ever getting re-elected. Then perhaps he will be forced to do some self-evaluation as he enjoys his money in his middle age and the 'sunset decades' of which he has so cavalierly deprived so many British soldiers.

Friday 17 August 2012

Is Ecuador Utopia?

Is Homer's Scepticism re Assange Justified?
Despite sharing the yearning for public transparency and Freedom of Information which the Wikileaks project has represented, I have no more idea than most people whether Julian Assange has had dodgy or even criminally violent sex with any women in Sweden, or whether he is being framed. Or indeed, both. He is certainly an irritating narcissist, but that does not make him a sex criminal. If being an irritating narcissist was a crime then every single academic I know, not excluding myself, would have to be locked up immediately.

But he has raised the interesting question of the place where one might most like to seek asylum. This could be a new party game. I don’t mean that apartment in the elegant Knightsbridge embassy, either, but the Republic of Ecuador. My first thoughts were that surely, to such a cosmopolitan individual as Assange, who is used to flying around, receiving adulation, making the headlines, being photographed with his rich and famous supporters (Bianca Jagger etc.),  and causing headaches to some of the most powerful politicians in the world, Ecuador must seem remote, obscure and provincial.

Phoenix, shrewd asylum-chooser
Certainly in ancient Greece, sensible asylum-seekers sought to improve their lifestyles. In the Iliad, Phoenix sought sanctuary in a northern  kingdom after a tricky situation developed at home in Achaea, involving—yes--sex and crime. His father had a concubine. His mother was jealous, and persuaded her son to seduce the concubine. His father cursed him. He was about to murder his father, but just in time changed his mind and ran away to the court of Peleus, Achilles’ father, in Phthia. There he was welcomed and loaded with money.

Why Alcibiades sought asylum in Sparta (Socrates' nagging)
Later, the accidental homicide Adrastus upgraded from his dull Phrygian homeland when he gained asylum with Croesus of Sardis, the richest man in Lydia and indeed the world. Or take Hippias, the son of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus, who (when things got rocky and the Athenians became democrats)  defected to Persia. Life in sumptuous Susa and Persepolis with Darius and Xerxes and their pet peacocks can hardly have been hard. When a few decades later it was Alcibiades’ turn to get into hot water at Athens, he fled straight to the only place in the Greek world as rich and powerful as his home town. In Sparta, he may have missed conversations with Socrates. But he will certainly have been able, at last, to indulge his legendary appetites for self-promotion and sex, which Socrates was always trying to argue him out of. 

Ecuador is not a wealthy Bronze-Age palace culture, nor imperial Susa, nor classical Sparta. But perhaps Assange is cleverer than we think. Ecuador has huge advantages, besides its ancient Inca history, its beautiful Spanish architecture, its exceptionally long national anthem "¡Salve, Oh Patria!" (to which the traditional orchestration sounds like a fairground merry-go-round on Ecstasy, its very colourful coat-of-arms, and its small population inhabiting a large and stunningly beautiful natural environment.

In fact, by the new constitution, brought in by referendum in 2008, Ecuador has become the first nation in the world to recognize the ‘rights of nature’, basically giving human rights to its amazing flora and fauna. There is also universal suffrage at the age of 16. There has been a massive injection of cash into the nation’s free public healthcare system. The historic railway lines have been completely overhauled. There are 61 universities and more than 300 HE institutions for a population of only 15 million.   

If Assange makes it to Ecuador, he will not only be welcomed by a spirited government, but enjoy a life expectancy of at least 78 years, be able to swim and watch the unique mating dance of the Blue-Footed Booby in the Galapagos islands and sip chilled Anisados high in the Andes. Because Ecuador is so close to the equator, nobody suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder. I must admit that I am rather tempted to beat him to it.

Sunday 12 August 2012

On Cheating

Even Girls Know Crawl is Fastest
The winner of the gold medal in the 100-metre breast stroke at the Olympics, Cameron van der Burgh from South Africa, has not been disqualified despite admitting that he cheated. He took three underwater ‘dolphin kicks’ on pulling out when the rules permit only one. But he is correct when he says that all breast strokers do it: the judges simply do not police them. 

This news story underlines for me the sheer pointlessness of the breast stroke. If the idea is to get across a stretch of water very fast, then swimming underwater for as far as possible, followed by the ‘crawl’ (here demonstrated by ancient Greek woman on lower level of vase painting), is the only way to do it. The breast stroke is like asking sprinters to run with their wrists tied together, or jumping in a sack, or carrying an egg and spoon, which every primary school child knows can be won by the judicious insertion of a piece of chewing gum between concave surface of the spoon and the egg.

Pelops wins first Olympic Chariot Race by Cheating
But van der Burgh's dolphin kicks also remind me that the Greeks knew all about the problem presented by rules in something as fiercely contested as the Olympics. The very foundation myth of the Olympics tells how Pelops gloriously  won the chariot race by bribing his opponent’s chariot mechanic to sabotage the axle pins of the rival vehicle.

Nero, World-Class Sports Cheat
When the Emperor Nero declared himself victor in the Olympic chariot race in 67 AD, with a team of ten horses instead of four and despite falling out, he was arguably upholding the true Olympic spirit as first established by Pelops.  But my gold medal for the all-time most committed sports cheat must certainly go to Rosie Ruiz, who was declared winner of the Boston Marathon in 1980 before it transpired that she had only joined the race for the last half-mile dash down Commonwealth Avenue.
Ruiz, World Record Holder in Cheating

And now the Olympics fever in Britain is about to cause a whole new epidemic of cheating. Boris Johnson has decreed that all school pupils should be forced into at least two hours of exercise,  as he did on the playing fields of Eton, every day. The (Etonian) Prime Minister agrees, insisting that it must consist of ‘traditional’ competitive sports such as football and hockey, and that ‘Indian dancing’ does not count.  (I could not believe my eyes when I read this--has he any idea how physically demanding every single one of the eight schools of classical Indian dance actually is?)

Etonians Plot Torture of Geeky Children
In my view, Cameron's policy would count as institutionalised child abuse.  Many children are terrified of any form of sport involving a ball and physically stronger peers. As a nerdy and uncoordinated child, I personally undertook any form of cheating in order to get out of hockey, which was so violent that my shin bones began to look corrugated. So I developed strange maladies including a rare, dangerous and highly contagious form of Athlete's Foot and routinely forged letters from parents and doctors excusing me from PE sessions. Fortunately, the sports mistresses at Nottingham Girls' High School despised me so much that they pretended to believe these documents were genuine. Despite my allegedly acute foot-fungus, I was allowed to go swimming (which I did enjoy) on my own instead.

Sport really is like religion: people who want to do it should go ahead, but be prevented from insisting that everyone else participates. I foresee a whole new meaning becoming attached to the term ‘Sick Note’ in the jargon of the British young. It is not cheating in sport that will be the issue, but cheating in order to get out of it.

Saturday 4 August 2012

The Hero, the Tortoise, and Mitt Romney's Head

Ideal Masculinity as far as I'm Concerned
What with rapacious bankers and cretinous footballers, men have had a rough time in this blog, so I want to celebrate the finest male role model for years. This week, British physician Ben Waterfall heroically saved the life of his small son's drowning pet tortoise (named 'Carries-His-Whole-World-on-his-Back', i.e. Atlas) by giving  him mouth-to-mouth  resuscitation for 6 minutes. Dr Waterfall recalled, ‘I was quite emotional at the time. I first started doing it and I had my mouth over his whole head, mouth, nose and nostrils.’ He sucked out a cupful of water.

Spot the Difference (answer: toupee)
Greater love hath no father ever shown. The only other person alive who has had to force herself to do so much tortoise-kissing is Ann Romney. If you imagine Mitt without the hair (more column inches in the press have been expended on the question of whether the top bit is a toupee than on his systematic tax evasion) then what do you get? A grinning tortoise with glittery eyes and duplicitous expression.

Romney's hairpiece is admittedly high-quality, but still betrayed by the concealed root area at the frontal hairline. Perhaps he wears it because he knows about  the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, who died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald pate, mistaking it for a smooth round stone. This happened after this formerly brilliant dramatist forgot his principles as an Athenian democrat and started sucking up to fabulously wealthy Sicilian dictators.

The story may have developed because Aeschylus' poetry is full of cryptic oracular language involving birds and animals, akin to Aesopic fable. Perhaps in one of his lost plays the poet told the Greek myth of Chelone, the original tortoise, who was doomed to carry her house on her back for eternity. She had put two fingers up to her self-appointed political masters by either refusing to attend the wedding of Zeus and Hera because she preferred to stay at home, or taking too long to get herself ready for it. A girl needs time to fix her make-up, after all, however self-important the sender of the invitation.

Aeschylus died because he lost his toupee
Testudines still have a political resonance. To many Native Americans, the real name for their territory, dating from millennia before the European invasion, was and is Turtle Island. Tribal creation myths, such as that of the Iroquois, relate how the Great Spirit created their land by layering earth plants and creatures on the back of a cosmic giant turtle. The name has more recently come to symbolise Native American  resistance, indigeneity and lost nomadic way of life.

North America's True identity as Turtle Island
Romney, as a Mor(m)on, actually believes the Book of Nephi in the Mormon Bible, which states that Native Americans are a lost tribe of Israel subject to the curse of dark skin because they are idle, loathsome and abominable. Very edifying.

As a man who has been in trouble for abusing his dog, he has already offended the Greek goddess Artemis and may be eaten by his own pet dogs (in 1983 he chained one to the roof of an automobile for a whole day's drive to Canada). 

But  he should now be careful not to offend the Great Spirit of Turtle Island any further, and certainly keep that toupee glued on. Otherwise he may find himself suffering the same death as Aeschylus, an earlier (although inestimably more talented) collaborator with the international plutocracy.