Perhaps the best reason to join a book club is that it will encourage you to read books which otherwise you would have missed. This was certainly the case with the “Bookseller of Kabul” which I ignored since its release in 2003 despite having garnered a considerable degree of praise. For some reason it never captured my attention sufficiently to get to get around to reading it. It was clearly an important book but one which passed me.
It passed me by, that is, until our book club decided to have a year avoiding European and American literature in an attempt to broaden our horizons. This was the second foray further afield, Israel having been our first. Am I glad that I have read this book ? Certainly, it was an interesting and educative read. Did the book deserve the praise it has received ? I am not convinced, it is a rather patchy offering, a rather strange hybrid of fiction and non-fiction.
This book is the result of a Norwegian journalist’s four months spent living with a family in Afghanistan. She has taken the interviews she had with the family members and turned them into a readable family saga. The book is well written and well translated, it is easy to read and she creates good character portraits of the family members. She has managed to convey a sense of life in modern Afghanistan which is revealing.
However, it is because it is this hybrid form that it also disappoints. Had it been non-fiction then supporting information about the historical events would have been valuable as well as some analysis of their relevance. As it is the occupation by the Russians and the Taliban are described as nothing more than scenery as the backdrop to this family story. Had this been a novel then there may have been more emotion. The author has tried to be non-judgemental and simply describe the lives of the participants. There are no heroes here, there is no attempt by anyone to change things, there is no questioning of the rightness of the situation. Like the women in the story, everything is passively accepted.
These snippets of daily life are so depressing, no-one fights or rails against their lot. Nobody has any vision of a better life. The lives of these women in a middle-class afghan household is that of servitude and bondage. Even the members who were older, and able to remember better and freer times, do nothing to try for significant change. The way this life, more suited to the medieval era, is accepted as reasonable leaves the reader with a feeling of hopelessness for the future of Afghanistan and especially its women. So, although this book does open a window to let us see an aspect of life which is often hidden to us, it also hides any causes or solutions (if there are any) from us.
I recommend the book therefore to anyone who doubts the dreadful position that women have in this part of the world; they need the distress of reading this. If you already know this sorry state of affairs it might be better using your reading to search for an explanation or, even better, the start of a solution.
As it is December, and Christmas nears, I have been reminded by the incessant TV adverts that I should really get down to the serious task of present buying. It is, after all, the meaning of the season and the sooner we get down to buying and consuming the better. I have written before that I won’t be joining this type of Christmas, in a post-scarcity world I have no desire to take part in this feast of over-indulgence. I would, however, be keen to try and rekindle an older sentiment of the season, that being the call for “Goodwill to all men” .
My initial thought was that I could change to issuing charity gifts for friends and family and, likewise, they could send these to me. However, on further deliberation I don’t think that this is a good idea. I fear that charity gifts never really benefit the sender or receiver and are not the most effective way of benefitting the charity either.
I want to be charitable, and to do so, I must take something of mine and decide to give it, without desiring any reward, to someone who needs it more than I. If I had decided to spend £20 on John’s Christmas present but instead made a £20 charity gift on his behalf then I have not really donated to charity. I did not forego anything to make the donation so I can hardly be thought of as having made a charitable act. In fact, it might be argued that I deprived John of his gift and stole the £20 from him to make my charitable donation.
Similarly John has not made a charitable act in receiving the gift. He did not forego anything nor did he make any conscious decision to make an act of charity. Indeed, had he chosen to act charitably he may not have concurred with my decision, he may not have felt that my donation to the “Campaign to save the Guinea Worm” was the most pressing of the world’s concerns. So neither of us has managed to act charitably by the exchange of this gift. But there are further problems.
When we make acts of charity it is generally wise to keep these private. As the bible enjoined us “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,”. It is helpful not to “sound a trumpet” before us to publicise our actions. If we wish to give without thought of reward or recompense we should avoid this publicity, it is possible that the publicity and good regard we obtain could be thought of as a reward for our donation. These issues are not minor, as thoughts of how we might be viewed for our donation might influence which causes to which we donate. By not publicising our intentions it might free us to consider charitable causes which might be less popular but actually of more merit. So this publicising is not good for me, as the donor, and can only act as some virtue signalling to John who now gets a present which simply reminds him that I feel virtuous after giving his present to charity.
It would have been more honest and appropriate to put £20 pounds in an envelope and send it to John with a note suggesting he might want to donate the money to any charity he so desires. This would circumvent another problem. Charities are aware that sometimes recipients feel these gifts are less festive and thus they bundle a gift with them – in my case a lovely cuddly, fluffy guinea worm toy! The £10 that manufactured, packaged and posted this gift cut the charitable donation in half making this type of giving less efficient. Rather than giving gifts to each other, with a charitable component, we should give directly to those in need.
Christmas used to be powerfully special. It had the strength to stop the madness of World War I, for an all too brief few days. It gave a temporary respite to the hell and madness of the Western Front. The importance of Peace and Goodwill was what marked Christmas apart from those other winter festivals which we use to raise our spirits in the middle of these dark, cold days. Indeed, there are even new occasions, such as Black Friday, to give us an excuse to loose the reigns on our consumption and counter any qualms we might have about over-indulgence. Unfortunately, however, this tendency has begun to affect Christmas also. If you were to look at the paraphernalia surrounding Christmas (the adverts, TV programs, shop windows, cards, craft fairs, grottos, etc) you would clearly see the theme of maximising our personal pleasures. With the emphasis on consumption and indulgence, and the loss of any sacred elements, Christmas has been hollowed out. It has no core nor substance, the traditional virtues of this season have been lost, but all is not lost, we can recover the situation.
This is what we need to do to reclaim Christmas. We must stop giving presents to those who already have, to those who we know, and start giving to those who have not, and to those we don’t yet know. We must start to show “goodwill to all men” and start to spread the benefits that we enjoy so that they can be enjoyed by others. Therefore I want no presents, not even charity presents, and hope that with any money you save you may be able to use for your own charitable activities. I, for my part, pledge that I will keep my part of this bargain and ensure I do likewise. Between us we can start to recover some of Christmas’s significance and its power to make the world a better place, even if only temporarily. We may be clutching at straws but if we do not act we might lose Christmas forever.
The last days of autumn are with us and the snow on the hilltops suggest winter is not far away. The work on the smallholding has changed accordingly. It is this gently changing rhythm that makes life so pleasant. I recall my days working; when each day was similar to the last, the same challenges faced day after day, the same routines whether it was winter or summer, Monday or Friday.
However, one task I could happily avoid is the freeing of sheep from the briar patches. At this time of year one of the few sources of greenery for the sheep is the bramble. They love bramble leaves, almost as much as ivy leaves, but unfortunately as it is the end of the year they are also wearing their thick coats. While the sheep pushes itself into the briar patch its fleece acts as armour to protect it from thorns. However, this spurs them on to go deeper into the thicket when they them get stuck as the tendrils of the brambles get caught up in their wool. They get stuck sound, unable to move, and at risk of dying from thirst and starvation.
At this time of year we need to do four checks a day and to be armed with secateurs and thick gloves every time. We will try and clear these patches and the goats are great allies in this. They too like eating brambles but are more agile than sheep and don’t carry the thick fleece which causes them to be trapped. By the end of the month, after everyone’s work, we should be out of the woods as far as this problem is concerned.
Diet also changes with the season. Not just in the concerning seasonal fruits and vegetables but also our meats. It is always this time of year that we have a flurry of pheasant meals. Usually shot by ourselves but today courtesy of someone who enjoys the shoot but not the product. I can understand why some people are not keen on pheasant. The first few times we ate it I was decidedly unimpressed. I think the problem is that roast pheasant can often be a dry meat and sometimes quite bitter as well.
However, having tasted pheasant and other fowl in casseroles I have been converted and now it is something I start to look forward to in October, knowing in November and December there will be a surfeit of game fowl. The best recipe is probably the simplest and uses root vegetables and cider as described below :-
Skin the pheasants and take the breast and leg meat. Don’t bother trying to pluck them as this is unnecessary work and adds little to the final meal.
Brown the meat in a casserole dish.
Add whatever vegetables you have to hand. We usually use celery, turnip, parsnip, celeriac, leek and onion. Fry these with the meat to soften the leeks and onions. If you have any cooking apples add a couple.
Season with salt, pepper, thyme, parsley, and marjoram.
Add a can of cheap cooking cider and water to cover the whole things
Slow cook in a low oven until everything is ready.
Serve with creamy potato mash and cabbage
A perfect autumn or winter meal, warming after an afternoon in the cold pulling sheep out of the briars.
Left to our own devices we can become farmers and bakers, tailors and cobblers, plumbers and engineers, astronauts and programmers. Our possibilities are limitless as we cooperate to help ourselves and each other. “What a piece of work is man”. It takes a state to turn us into soldiers and sailors to make us kill and maim ourselves and each other. On Remembrance Sunday we should take time to think on all those that died or were injured during war and pledge never to be fooled again, by the old lie, that it is sweet and honourable that we die for our state.
Dulce et Decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
I read today [OECD] that Britain has the highest rates of obesity, and fatness, in Europe and is the 6th most obese country in the world. There is also the terrifying statistic that the rate of obesity has doubled since the 1990’s and we face the serious prospect of this bankrupting the NHS. Obesity is a major risk factor, as we all know, for diabetes, cancer, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and dementia – this rate of change should alarm us – but it won’t.
For many years, most of my working life, I ignored a growing problem. This problem was the growing size of my belly and my increasing size. By the time I changed my lifestyle 6 years ago I had managed to create quite a respectable problem for myself. My waist was 35 inches, my weight was 14 stones and unfortunately not being a tall man my BMI was 31.6. I was quite clearly obese. This had crept up on me, I knew as I aged I was becoming less fit but I didn’t look that different to many other middle-aged men and nobody passed any adverse comments. As a doctor, I knew I was building up risks for myself but I was able to minimise these in my head. Nothing bad had happened, I don’t look that unusual, my blood pressure is OK, I still stay active – it really was easy to convince myself that this was no great deal.
Then came the rude awakening. Five years ago I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes mellitus with blood sugars so high I had the full range of symptoms and was started on metformin instantly, at a pretty high dose. I then went through the NHS’s education package. This told me to take my medicines, eat regularly and sensibly, and take a bit of exercise. With this, I was assured, the thing was manageable and I’d be fine. No-one took a blind bit of notice of the large, and obvious, wobbly bundle of fat I had around my middle even though this was the most conspicuous thing of my appearance. (If you want to imagine me then – not recommended – then imagine a potato with four cocktail sticks as limbs, that was me to a “T”). I sat on classes with other similarly shaped people and we all pretended that there was nothing amiss, nothing that eating a stick of celery couldn’t sort out. I went to the gym, where the rhythmical bouncing of my and my new friends’ bellies, while we tried to jog on the treadmills, was almost hypnotic to watch. Through it all no doctor, no nurse, no dietician, no-one said – for goodness sake get rid of that belly ! They were all too polite to mention it.
When I received the diagnosis a cold shiver went down my spine. I’d worked in an area where I’d seen the consequences of diabetes. I’d spoken to men about to have their feet amputated, I’d given rehab advise to folk after their stroke, I’d completed forms confirming that a diabetic man was now blind, and I’d consoled widows after their spouse’s fatal heart attack. I knew my mortality risk was now considerably increased and I knew some of the problems I might face. I also knew, from very cursory information gathering, that my poor diet and obesity were the main factor in this.
I decided to change, I was so scared and shocked, I knew I had to change. I went on a low carb diet and lost 3 stones, I kept on the diet and took regular exercise. I saw my waistline shrink, my belly disappear and my blood return to near normal. After a few months I came off medication and have remained medication free, and with relatively normal bloods, for the past years. A couple of my diabetic pals, who were equally shocked, did the same thing with similarly good results. But I meet my other pals, who were never troubled by the thought of their weight; still obese, still taking medication and now starting to experience the adverse consequences of this illness.
So I have a personal interest in this report of growing obesity in the UK even though I am a relative neophyte to the world of diets and healthy eating. What are we to do to try and stop this growing trend. It is clear that there are some things we can’t do.
We can’t reduce the availability of food. This is a non-starter, there is no way we can limit what people eat – they must do this themselves. If you don’t sell the double pack of Mars bars I’m smart enough to get around this by buying two packs as is everybody else. Attempt to limit things by smaller packaging could only work if we were happy to accept central rationing of our food, otherwise we just buy more of the smaller packets.
I don’t think that we will get around this by education. I don’t think that there is anyone left that thinks a Big Mac and fries becomes a healthy option because it has a gherkin in it. We all know that a salad is healthier than a bar of chocolate – education is the answer when ignorance is the problem. That is not the issue here.
I doubt we will have much success tackling our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Anyone suggesting we get rid of the automobile, or suggesting we dig roads by hand or get rid of any other labour saving machinery, is unlikely to have a successful career in politics. We can suggest that people exercise and find ways to make it easier but, unless we are going to have forced marches then we need to find ways to make people want to do this.
The key in the affluent west is that we need people to want to be normal sized, to fear being obese. This is what we have lost. As I walked around I saw other people the same shape as me, it normalised my obesity. Chairs, cars, everything has been slightly adapted to suit the larger body, each step making it easier to be obese and, more importantly, making it easier to ignore your own obesity. I needed somebody to tell me – “Whoa ! You’ve got far too big there. That doesn’t look right” but even when I had fallen ill people were too afraid to mention it. They were happier to let me die earlier or loose my sight, or foot, than to be accused of “fat shaming”
We would prefer people to be comfortable in their obesity, than in any way upset – but this is precisely what we do not need. Discomfort might prompt thought and redirection and improvement to their health and life. I wish someone had spoken honestly to me, when I asked “How do I look ?” I wish they had said “you are getting fat” rather than lied with “Fine”. There is no need to be unpleasant about this we just need to be honest. We also need to be careful about attempts to actively normalise obesity. I noted, when in the supermarket today, this is not as strange and impossible idea as I had thought – three of the covers of magazines (directed to young women) were using obese models. It may be dangerous to promote anorexic stick insect ideals of beauty but it is equally dangerous to promote obesity as a good choice.
The problem of obesity has unfortunately got bound up in the gender issues of objectification of womenWe but obesity doesn’t affect only one gender. All of us are at risk when we treat our health and future in a cavalier way like this. There are many vested interests who would prefer us not to think about it; the food and pharmaceutical industries would be much happier we consumed more of their products and dealt with the consequences. The media and beauty industry can sell us their products either way, fat or thin models, it is of no concern to them simply which model sells more copy.
People are free to live as they wish, they are free to be fat or thin as they choose, but they must choose with adequate knowledge. We should not influence these decisions because of our political biases and we should net let people die early because we were too afraid to tell the truth.
It is gingerly, and with a great deal of trepidation, that I write today’s post. I have been struck by the awfulness of Carl Sargeant’s death on Tuesday when it appears he took his life after having been accused of misbehaviour and having lost his government position. Now, I don’t have any great affection for politicians and did not know a great deal about Mr Sargeant before this event so why has his apparent suicide affected me ?
Firstly because it is a very obvious reminder of the terrible damage we are doing to our society and the rule of law by the ongoing hysteria in the media about sexual abuse and politicians. Clearly I would want to see any politician, of any hue, who abused any other person dealt with and punished appropriately. The promise of power and influence, that the world of politics offers, means that it will attract more than an average amount of psychopathic individuals. Therefore it is quite reasonable that we may find an above average number of people who are guilty acts of abuse in our governmental bodies. But, equally clearly, I only want guilty people punished and shamed. This distinction is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society where rules are just and punishment only justly applied when it is warranted.
One of the earliest legal treatises was the Mishneh Torah which was an attempt codify the bases of Jewish Law. In the early attempt to tease out guiding principles for a fair and just society the great philosopher Maimonides wrote :-
“It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”
as he was aware that to do otherwise was the start of a slippery slope which lead to a lawless and unjust society where conviction, not being based on an adequate burden of proof, could lead to punishment on the basis of a whim of courts and rulers. This has also been referred to as Blackstone’s Formulation after he stated “All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously; for the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer“.
This principle should be considered alongside another, related legal principle, that is, the presumption of innocence. All legal systems hold this principle dear. Roman law states “ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat” (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies), and Islamic law, Common Law and the Civil Law all carry this basic tenet. As the public puts it “Innocent until proven guilty“. This is a principle that keeps you and I safe : we can only fall foul of the law, and be punished, if we are found guilty after trail not simply by accusation.
In the Carl Sargeant case he was treated as if her were guilty before he had a hearing. He lost his position and was treated by Carwyn Jones, The First Minister of Wales, as if the accusations were true. This is the habit, increasingly popular, of jumping to the conclusion that accusations are truth. It is this approach which underpins such campaigns as #IBelieveHer. Now it is understandable that we want to increase the justice for those who are victims of any form of abuse but this strategy is very dangerous. If we believe the accusers without question what is the need for a trial ? If we believe the accusers then the only thing missing is retribution. This leads us to a very dark place where people can be destroyed by malicious accusations.
This photograph, might explain my concerns about this. This is a group of Welsh special advisors out for the evening celebrating on the night that they had just started the ball rolling on the case against Carl Sargeant. These are the expressions just after they have opened the floodgates of innuendo and suspicion. A colleague and erstwhile friend has been thrown to the dogs and this photograph reveals their feelings that very evening. When accusation becomes proof, accusations become dangerous and powerful political weapons which some people seem to enjoy using.
This is not the only legal principle that was ignored in Carl Sargeant’s case. He was never given details of the accusations nor knowledge of who his accusers were. Again in English Law, Roman Law, and also the Sixth Amendment of the United States this is a ignoring a cornerstone of justice. In the Bible, when Paul was accused, it was described thus :-
“It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face-to-face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges.”
If one does not know the accusations, nor your accuser, you are effectively denied the opportunity to defend yourself. If you can not defend yourself you cannot receive justice. It has long been known that ignoring this principle would lead to injustice and would facilitate terror. The oppressive, nightmarish qualities we try to explain when we use the term “Kafkaesque” , relate to being on trial but ignorant of your accusers and their claims as so well described nn Kafka’s novel Der Process (The Trial). Secret accusations, secret courts and clandestine meetings have always been the way of the power hungry who wish to subvert justice. In this particular case it seems that it has gone further than this as there were also meetings with the accusers when their stories were discussed with all the risks of contaminating evidence of any wrong doing. This is very reminiscent of the history of the Stasi, or the Gestapo, collecting accusations so that they might prove useful against political enemies in power struggles at a future date
Carl Sargeant did not know of what he was accused nor do we. We know that it could not have been sufficient to warrant police involvement. It is likely that it was behaviour that is deemed inappropriate in our present moral climate. He might have behaved in a manner more in tune with an older generation than the present. If this is the case then it is probable that a further legal principle is in the process of being ignored – we can only be tried for offences against the rules that applied at the time. Guilt can not be backdated. If tomorrow they pass a law outlawing drinking alcohol on Sundays, it is this principle which protects me against them coming and punishing me for last Sunday’s drinking. I am obliged to follow the law as it is just now, not as how it might be in the future. Without this principle we could all be facing punishment in the future for some act which is not a crime at present – did you spank your child ? Did you smoke in a public place ? etc etc. The same guideline should be used when we consider social mores and customs.
For all these reasons the story of Carl Sargeant is a sad and worrisome tale. He did not receive fair justice and now never can. We will never know the truth of these accusations as they can not be tested now that he has died, so justice will never be served. These principles are not minor bureaucratic foibles but are the foundations of our enlightened society. For the sake of all those black men lynched in the South in America, denied a trial and presumed guilty on the words of their accusers, we must fight for these principles. For the sake of all the women accused of witchcraft and killed never able to confront their accusers we need to remember how important these principles continue to be. For the sake of the very many women who are going to be accused of adultery, or other crimes in the middle east, and face death just on the basis of an accusers word we need to promote these ideas and promote civilisation.
Carl Sargeant worked hard for his community and tried to improve the world by his work in politics, I hope now that he can rest in peace. Hopefully his family will also find peace and perhaps, in time, they may see that his sad death contributed to a turning point when society turned its back on hysteria and witch hunting.
Today’s daily prompt, about the egg, got me thinking about food and the basics of life. In particular, it made me think about the furore over foodbanks in Britain. These charitable concerns were set up, initially, by church groups such as the Trussell Trust, in order to help the poor and hungry in our society and to allow its members to do the most important thing that we can do as people – to look after our fellows.
It is a shame, therefore, that foodbanks have become the current political football. Rarely are they mentioned but to complain about there presence – “There should be no need for charity in a rich country like ours” – is the common refrain. The existence of foodbanks is used in many political debates as a stick to beat the opponent as a symbol of their failings. However, I would contest that it is heart-warming to see the growth of charity and people trying to help their brothers. Voluntary, local organizations such as this are better than centralised government agencies.
Man is a social animal, it is in his nature to help his fellows. Left to his own devices he is cooperative and adventurous and works in groups to increase the wellbeing of his group. An integral part of this is charity. 150 years ago there was boom in self-help and mutual aid organisations (mutual societies, friendly societies, insurance schemes, religious and trade groups) and over three quarters of working men had some form of health and unemployment insurance. These growth of these schemes was seriously hampered by the development of the current welfare state which rapidly became the monopoly provider (with all the consequent problems that monopoly providers have).
I would guess that we would all agree that we want to help those less fortunate than ourselves for whatever cause and it was this desire which promoted the developments of those schemes. Unfortunately, there has been the development of very negative views on the left and on the right of the poorer in our society. On the right there are concerns that they might be indolent or reckless and need some punitive element to their assistance to try and correct what they see as bad behaviour. On the left the poorer are seen as incompetent, unable to organize and requiring central planning to take over. The left also tend to view us all as egocentric and greedy who would not look after our neighbours were we not compelled to by act of law and threat of punishment.
Both of these views have damaged societies abilities to develop better local schemes. The welfare state has created a gap between donor and recipient, which is poor for both parties – donors can not easily influence how their assistance is used and recipients become increasingly seen as “the other”, something outside of society – apart and lesser. (However, as an aside, I have to say I am grateful of this gap when it allows me not to feel too close to the decision to use my tax payments to kill some Yemeni child.)
Welfare states may not make people lazy, there is really no evidence for this, but they do often cause dependency, and apathy, and often can have perverse incentives which reduce the ability of individuals to return to work and sometimes damage family structures. Welfare states, by their national basis, are often the reasons for people’s dislike of free movement – incomers are seen as jumping into a scheme they and their families had not established (thus felt to be receiving benefits without entitlement) rather than being viewed as possible new partners with whom to work and grow (all studies find immigration strengthens economic growth).
As we now use the term “poverty” to define a group a specific distance from the mean wealth of the population we will always have people in poverty – unless there was no deviation whatsoever in incomes (an unlikely scenario) there will always be the relatively poor and we will always need and want to aid them. All the great religions and philosophies have seen this as a cardinal act of humanity (“If anyone with earthly possessions sees his brother in need, but withholds his compassion from him, how can the love of God abide in him?” in the Bible and the Koran’s recognition that there is a “” to our wealth”) Those, often religious groups, who wish to do this through foodbanks should be applauded for their actions. We should not give all power and planning for assistance away, the less charity there is in a society the less human, less cooperative and less kind our society becomes.