Sunday, August 02, 2009

Green Roofs

I miss our terrace. And the finca dream. But how many of us get to run away to the countryside anyway? What to do when the future - both personal and for the majority - is city life?

This was in May's National Geographic:

Up on the Roof By Verlyn Klinkenborg
Photographs by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel
A lofty idea is blossoming in cities around the world, where acres of potential green space lie overhead. Photo Gallery.

If buildings sprang up suddenly out of the ground like mushrooms, their rooftops would be covered with a layer of soil and plants.

That's not how humans build, of course. Instead we scrape away the earth, erect the structure itself, and cap it with a rainproof, presumably forgettable, roof. It's tempting to say that the roofscape of every city on this planet is a man-made desert, except that a desert is a living habitat. The truth is harsher. The urban roofscape is a little like hell—a lifeless place of bituminous surfaces, violent temperature contrasts, bitter winds, and an antipathy to water.

But step out through a hatch onto the roof of the Vancouver Public Library at Library Square—nine stories above downtown—and you'll find yourself in a prairie, not an asphalt wasteland. Sinuous bands of fescues stream across the roof, planted not in flats or containers but into a special mix of soil on the roof. It's a grassland in the sky. At ground level, this 20,000-square-foot garden—created in 1995 by landscape architect Cornelia H. Oberlander—would be striking enough. High above Vancouver, the effect is almost disorienting. When we go to the rooftops in cities, it's usually to look out at the view. On top of the library, however, I can't help feeling that I'm standing on the view—this unexpected thicket of green, blue, and brown grasses in the midst of so much glass and steel and concrete.

Living roofs aren't new. They were common among sod houses on the American prairie, and roofs of turf can still be found on log houses and sheds in northern Europe. But in recent decades, architects, builders, and city planners all across the planet have begun turning to green roofs not for their beauty—almost an afterthought—but for their practicality, their ability to mitigate the environmental extremes common on conventional roofs.

Across town from the library, the Vancouver Convention Centre is getting a new living roof. Just across the street there is a chef's garden on the roof of the Fairmont Waterfront hotel. Across town in another direction, green roofs will go up on an Olympic village being built for the 2010 Winter Olympics. To stand on a green roof in Vancouver—or Chicago or Stuttgart or Singapore or Tokyo—is to glimpse how different the roof scapes of our cities might look and to wonder, Why haven't we always built this way?

Technology is only partly the reason. Waterproof membranes now make it easier to design green-roof systems that capture water for irrigation, allow drainage, support the growing medium, and resist the invasion of roots. In some places, such as Portland, Oregon, builders are encouraged to use living roofs by fee reductions and other incentives. In others—such as Germany, Switzerland, and Austria—living roofs are required by law on roofs of suitable pitch.

And, increasingly, researchers such as Maureen Connelly—who runs a green-roof lab at the British Columbia Institute of Technology—are studying the practical benefits green roofs offer, helping quantify how they perform and providing an accurate measure of their ability to reduce storm-water runoff, increase energy efficiency, and enhance the urban soundscape. There is beginning to be a critical mass of green roofs around the world, each one an experiment in itself. There's more here.


But what about us? A couple of floors above us there's a sizeable rooftop terrace where air conditioning units hum, bats and swallows squeak overhead, the occasional cricket and butterfly swings by, and which we and our neighbours only visit to dry our washing and (in our case) water the half dozen shrubs, rose bushes and fruit trees that we don't have room for in our flat. Perhaps some kind of green roof might be practical up there?

I don't know that it would have a major impact on power use because, although this building is cold in winter and hot in the summer, so we all need heaters and air conditioners, that's probably more to do with the full-height external wall than heat transfer through the roof. And we couldn't use the whole roof because we do need to be able to dry our washing.

But in a modest neighborhood experiment, we might be able to convert an exposed, under-used roof into a fairly low-maintenance green space that gives everyone the pleasures of a garden in our brick and concrete environment, and incidentally provides a weather shield for the original surface.

Of course, we aren't a big architectural practice factoring planning regulations into a major project; or a big company with 6,000 square feet of roof space, and tax-deductable green ideas. We're private tenants in an apartment block. And there's a recession on. (Uhuh..) So I'm talking not much expertise, not a lot of spare time, and even less spare cash. But you can establish a green roof on a limited budget.

Our small apartment building has plant pots on every landing and most windowsills; and neighbours who talk to each other - often about who's growing what (a fern, geraniums, spider plants, aloe vera), where (sunny landing, shady corner), and how (staking, watering, neglecting). And so, perhaps, if we get together, and do our homework, we might be able to come up with something we can afford and maintain, and whose merits would convince that cautious breed, the landlord.

In the meantime, according to the IGRA (International Green Roof Association) website, the largest Green Roof project in world is just outside Madrid. It was -5C here last winter, and +39C last month. If a 100,000 sq. m. installation works here, then with the right planting, it must be possible anywhere.

There's plenty more information at, and their project database is inspiring. My favourites involve chickens,

and the Diane Cook and Len Jenshel rice field and roof top orchard in the National Geographic feature.


Saturday, May 02, 2009

Breathing space

Back in 2004, my very dear friend Karamah gave me Carol Phillipson's Cross-stitch Designs from India for my birthday. This is a delicious book, full of patterns derived from Indian textiles, metalwork, leatherwork and architecture, from art, and even from travelling theatre.

No, I haven't made anything from it yet, but since we moved into our new flat, which has space to do stuff, space to store stuff on shelves rather than in stacked boxes, space to pull out books and materials, spread out, and not have to put everything away again before you can eat / sleep / scratch your nose, space - space - spaaaaaaaaaaace!!!!!! - wheeeeeeee!!!!! (Did I mention that in our new flat, we've got space?) life is so much more enjoyable. Nesting again.

Mostly, since the first phase of sorting out where things go and resuming old life in new layout, I've been digging through folders and workboxes; sorting and shelving magazines, books, wools and fabrics; and placing, repotting and re-arranging plants as I get to know our new microclimate. The trees have had to go on the rooftop terrace because we have no balconies here, but the enchanting red-stemmed curly leaved willow is right here in the living room, flanked by honeysuckle tendrils, a tall, blunt spear of rosemary, and a peace lily (Spathyphyllum) which, having survived freak hail, plunging temperatures, and savage emergency cutting back and repotting, is just beginning to unfurl new glossy spring leaves - yay! Another heroic survivor is the Aloe Vera: battered but game, it has put forth an inch-long spire between its two remaining wings. Bless.

Meanwhile, back at the sewing box, I'm getting my hand and eye in again. So rusty. I've been looking at two styles of embroidery from Gujarat: kantha, and abhala, both of which incorporate shisha glass. I loved the fine quality Arab and Indian shisha embroidery I saw in Dubai, and we have two patchwork hangings, a black one made up of yokes and cuffs worked in gold and silver threads, from the abayas worn by Muslim women in the UAE; and the other predominantly red and orange, framed in black, and covered in red, black and green chainstitch. I also have an incredibly heavy cotton skirt covered in abhala work, which I adapted as a beanbag because it is just too heavy to wear - but also very hard-wearing.

Here, we have four wicker dining chairs that need cushions , four 50cm feather cushions that need new covers, and our sons's old bedroom curtains - very faded on one side, but a beautiful cornflower blue on the other. I thought I'd experiment with applique, kantha and abhala, keeping the same colour fabrics and threads throughout, but trying something different on each one. I'm quite pleased with my first cushion cover, which has an appliqued bird adapted from a kantha embroidery pattern in Caroline Crabtree's World Embroidery*, and a vine with leaves worked abhala style, in herringbone stitch, with falls of yellow blossoms in french knots. Hmm. Separately, both vine and bird work, but together, they're out of balance: the exotic bird completely at odds with a vine which owes more to English tea trays than Indian door hangings.The other covers need less gentitility and more verve. And then I'll rework the first one.

By the way, Caroline* has written or collaborated on several books on embroidery and needlework. For some reason, there is no online image of this one book! The aesthetic in Munni Srivastava's Embroidery Techniques from East and West takes a sense of colour and texture combines the colour sense derived from growing up in Benares, in northern India, American or European crazy quilting and, though I found that Carol Phiilipson and the Caroline Crabtree and the two .

However, I have now joined the ranks of the women I used to envy: I have a fabric stash. Sorted by colour groups. On shelves. In a store-room with a light switch and a plug socket, so it may well become a workroom one day. Hally-bloomin-looooooya! My stash is not sophisticated, but it's personal: a mix of dress lengths, remnants, old sheets and cut-up favourite old skirts, shirts and jeans: one benefit of being 50+ is that I know what I like, and have done for a long time, so everything I've got stashed pleases my eye and goes with almost everything else. Also, when it comes to re-using old favourites, almost everything is cotton and colourfast, so I can mix anything I like,and know that it will wash: worn denims, sequinned translucent kurtas, fancy dress satins, prints and nets, faded velvet curtains, my hot pinks, yellows and oranges, Keefie's soft blues, greys and greens: past and future stacked up.

Home life.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Nosotros también podemos - So can we

Remember "Podemos!" the prophetic cry of the Spanish national football team (and almost every Spaniard and newly arrived foreigner...) last year? It translates as "We CAN!" (Some bloke in the US took his cue from Spain, and look where it got him.....)

El País has done a feature on the desires and prospects of adults with special needs, after Izaskun Buelta, a young woman with Down's Syndrome, put a question to Jose-Luís Zapatero about employment opportunities for handicapped people in Spain. Many people like Izaskun want to work and be independent, and they are showing that they can do it. Or to put it another way,

"So can we!"

Tienen síndrome de down. También proyectos de futuro. la joven izaskun buelta preguntó en televisión a zapatero sobre el empleo para discapacitados en españa. muchos como ella llaman a las puertas del trabajo y la vida independiente. están demostrando que pueden hacerlo.

Álvaro Quintanilla tiene 21 años. Acaba de aprobar la oposición que le ha convertido en funcionario en el Aula de Educación Ambiental del Ayuntamiento de Pozuelo de Alarcón, en Madrid. "Me llevo genial con mis hermanos, pero si no estudian... ¡ahí estoy yo!", asegura Álvaro

Álvaro Quintanilla is 21. He's just passed his Civil Service exams, and started work at the Environmental Studies Workshop operated by the local council of Pozuelo de Alarcón, in Madrid Province. "I get on really well with my colleagues, but if they don't study - I'm at them!" he assures us.
Gonzalo Custodio e Irene Sánchez tienen 23 años y son novios desde hace 16 meses. Ambos trabajan como ordenanzas, él, en Repsol YPF, ella, en su antiguo colegio. "Cada vez que miro a Irene pienso que es mucha mujer para mí", confiesa Gonzalo
Gonzalo Custodio and Irene Sánchez are 23, and have been going out together for 16 months. Both work as clerical assistants. He works for Repsol, and she works at her old school. "Every time I look at Irene, I think she's the girl for me." Gonzalo confides.
Marta Garrido tiene 30 años y trabaja en una empresa de lavandería. Hace tai-chi, le gusta bailar y el karaoke, ý aún le sobra tiempo: "Hago voluntariado en una residencia porque me gusta la alegría", dice.
Marta Garrido is 30, and works in a laundry. She does Tai Chi, and enjoys dancing & karaoke, and still has time to spare. "I volunteer in a residential home, because I enjoy the craic!" she says.
Ana Verde, de 26 años, está digitalizando los archivos de la Asociación de la Prensa de Madrid. "Estoy estudiando el papel protagonista del musical 'Mamma Mia!", explica.

Ana Verde, who's 26, is working as a data input clerk, digitising the archives of Madrid's Press Association. "I'm studying for the main role in Mamma Mia!" she says.
Hugo Aritmendiz, de 23 años, y Álvaro Juez, de 24, trabajan 25 horas semanales en el obrador de las pastelería Mallorca en Madrid. Tienen claro su objetivo: "Hay que trabajar, nos gusta... para formar una familia, ganar dinero"

Hugo Aritmendiz, aged 23, and Álvaro Juez, 24, work 25 hours a week at the Mallorca bakery in Madrid. They know what they want, "You have to work - and we like it - to support a family, to make money."
"Me encanta mi familia, pero desde hace cinco años vivo en un piso con amigas", cuenta Ana Manrique, quien, con 30 años, lleva uno trabajando en la firma de abogados Linklaters. Ana hace fotocopias, encuaderna y reparte el correo en las seis plantas del edificio.

"I adore my family, but for the past five years, I've been living in a shared flat with some friends," says Ana Manrique, who, at the age of 30, has come to work at the legal firm Linklaters. Ana does the photocopying and binding, and distributes the mail around the six-floor building.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

a shared culture of peace

In April 2008, the Fundación Cultura de Paz, Foundation for a Culture of Peace organised an international meeting at the Monastery of Motserrat, just outside Barcelonia, to discuss the role of religion in the building of peace.
Reuters photo: (L-R) Mohammad Khatami, former Iranian President and President of the Foundation for Dialogue Among Civilisations, Spaniard Federico Mayor Zaragoza, president of the Foundation for a Culture of Peace and former director-general of UNESCO, and the Abbot of Montserrat Josep Maria Soler ... at the signing ... of the Declaration of Montserrat.

Not long ago, a friend and I were discussing - ok, arguing about - God; and whether the divine might exist in any of the perceived - or official - forms; given that every society and culture since the beginning of human records has identified and worshipped 'the divine'; and, nowadays you can find both illiterates and college professors who believe that there is a God, or there isn't a God, or they don't know, and (or) they don't much care.

Whatever the case may be, I was struck by this statement, which I came across on the Abadia (abbey?)de Montserrat website, in this Final draft for a Declaration of Montserrat on religions and the building of peace.
As stated in the Alliance of Civilizations Report and others (2) we must enhance efforts to bridge the divides between religions and cultures through dialogue and concrete action, because religions and cultures are intertwined. We must overcome the misperceptions, stereotypes, biased language and concepts reproduced by the media and frequently echoed by irresponsible leadership. Religions must stay together to build a future where religions co-exist harmonically and work together for a common future. We must challenge attitudes that spread the appearance of links between religion and violence, extremism and even terrorism. (my italics)

Towards the end of the document, there is this paragraph:
We are convinced that a culture of dialogue, alliance, non-violence and peace must be
built with full respect to the human rights, the UN Charter and the rule of law. Such a
shared culture of peace needs to give creative expressions to the teaching of the world’s religious traditions: we are all responsible for one another with a sense of otherness and brotherhood. In political terms, the only security that is practically possible and morally sound is “shared security”.
That works for me.

"Love your neighbour. Do good to those who hate you." takes some doing, sometimes,
but we could start withItalic "Do no harm." or "Live and let live."

Maybe not buy any newspaper that routinely prints emotive, self-righteous headlines in five centimetre capitals, and devotes more space to photos than to words (overcome the misperceptions, stereotypes, biased language and concepts reproduced by the media and frequently echoed by irresponsible leadership).

..........................Then again, not all the broadsheets are on the side of the winged spiritual beings of your choice.......... Phooey - better step out of my nice cosy Guardian comfort zone....... I have got to stop thinking about the big stuff on Sunday afternoons........

..ahem.. Where was I? Oh yeah..

Maybe try the food, or the music, or the movies, or the books.
Buy the jewellery.
Adapt the fashions.
Copy the decor.
Maybe let the kids play together.
Wave and smile.
Talk to each other in the queue at the check-out
(enhance efforts to bridge the divides between religions and cultures through dialogue and concrete action).

All the big stuff!
The FCP put it this way.

¡Ojalá! - as they say here in Spain - a word derived, like many Spanish words, from Arabic, and meaning - I wish!


A small group of us got together yesterday - at last - to sing madrigals. We had a lovely time,but I don't know much about music history and theory, so today I thought I'd look up madrigals, and try once more to get my head round the terms polyphony and monophony. We're talking Wikipedia time again.

OK. Now I know what a madrigal is, but the other two terms just won't stick. I expect, though, that once I've sung more of each - with people who do know what they mean - and I've heard and felt how they fit together, then I'll get it. (In my wanderings, I also found homophony and heterophony. Who thinks of these words????????)

Anyway, there were five of us, three proper musicians who could sight read music, and knew their sharps from their naturals (and their troubadors from their jongleurs), and two of us who just like singing. We met in a living room, with a piano, had some tea (Yup, all English!) and had a go at three songs. The female voices were straightforward - one soprano and one alto (me). But one of the three guys, basically all tenors, though one was more baritone, had to sing bass. Whatever - it worked. Four part harmony. It's still very very rough, but we were so chuffed with ourselves.

I found several interpretations of all three on Youtube. They definitely won't help me remember the alto line, but I did enjoy hearing what different groups have done with these songs.

I'm not sure about the frocks, or Gandalf, but this is great fun to sing. It's a walking song for pilgrims climbing up to the Monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona. Most of the other groups sang it much more slowly, and once you've seen the location of the monastery, you'll know why....

Then there was Locus iste (This place was made by God), by the nineteenth century Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. The men practised in the kitchen, leaving us women with the piano in the living room. Next week, we might even try putting it all together.

And a Thomas Morley madrigal, Now is the month of maying, which sounds absolutely manic when taken at speed, but at a rhythm more suited to - maying - suggests all sorts of fun! Morley was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and they may have known each other.

Typical Tudor frock.......


I keep coming across craftspeople who sell their work on Etsy. I can do Amazon, but get very nervous about Ebay, and have never tried it. And Etsy? No clue. Pie in the sky.

I found this today:

Ahhhhh. Now I get it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Just a thought

Now there was a time when they used to say that behind every - "great man", there had to be a - "great woman", but in these times of change you know that it's no longer true, so we're coming out of the kitchen, (This is a good thing, as otherwise my beloved couldn't get in there, and I would get totally fed up of a diet of fried egg butties - Even though I make excellent fried egg butties.) 'cause there's somethin' we forgot to say to you: Sisters are doing it for themselves; standing on their own two feet, and ringing on their own bells. ..........

Now we ain't making stories, and we ain't laying plans, 'cause a man still loves a woman, and a woman still loves a man................... Habiiiiiibiiiiiii!

P.S. Oh, and this may be a foolish move, but since I generally mean what I say, and more or less manage to say what I mean, and I'm sure none of it really matters anyway, I thought I'd quit hiding behind my adorable little duckie. But for all her fans, I give you the one, the only,


And, as befits one of her extraordinary talents - author of the classic novel of Anatidae adventure, Duckleberry Finn; star of the cult TV series Ducktor Who, and the ever-popular Ducks of Hazzard; director of the groundbreaking movie Sex, Lies and Ducktape, and the more populist Duck Rogers; lead vocalist with the Three Duckies, and composer of that great Motown hit Duck! In the Name of Love - I am delighted to be able to reveal that when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences conduckted a worldwide survey to select this year's recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, MamaDuck was far and away the most popular choice. Donald Duck is coming out of retirement to present her with the coveted statuette.

Of course, MamaDuck thinks the fuss is quite riduckulous, and was heard to mutter, "Cor, luvaduck, what a lot of fuss for little me." at a recent press conference, but for her many, many fans, there never was a happier day than when she was - at last - induckted into the Hollywood Hall of Fame, and left her distinctive signature in the wet concrete of Hollywood Boulevard.
See you at the Oscars!

P.P.S. Annie & Aretha O.K!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cory Booker, Mayor of "the worst city in America"

I ask him for his own assessment of his political weaknesses. He mulls it over.

"Sometimes I can be brash, and I can charge into things without thinking..." He smiles. "And I've had some incredibly good results! There's a quote from Lincoln: 'I've long since come to realise that a man with few vices has few virtues.' I think we have everything we need to be incredibly successful."

I can't help laughing at this burst of politico-speak. "Is that what you actually think?" I ask.

"Look," he says in self-justification, "when

I say 'we', I mean 'we', not 'I'."

"I'm not accusing you of arrogance," I tell him. "I'm accusing you of optimism."

"I say hope," he clarifies. "I'm a prisoner of hope. I don't see us not succeeding."

When I speak to Booker's friend Eddie Glaude, he says that "prisoner of hope" is a phrase Booker often likes to use. I tell him that's all very well, but couldn't you have the hope without the prison? "No," Glaude explains. "To say that is to say that we have the existential armour to hold off despair and doubt. You know, WEB DuBois in his 1903 classic talked about the three temptations: the temptation of hate, of despair and of doubt. Doubt is the most insidious of them all - you begin to doubt your capacity. And so to be a prisoner of hope in some ways is to secure oneself as best as one can."

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Where are the doves?

Paul Kaye 'A dark fog has enveloped us'

When a rocket killed his mother-in-law in Israel, actor Paul Kaye was appalled by the celebrations in Gaza. Six months on, he feels a different kind of despair

At Shuli's funeral last May, her son Jonathon, my brother-in-law, gave a speech. "Where are the doves?" he asked. "What is this land worth without someone with a vision? Nothing. Without doves it wasn't worth the struggle." Jonny is 34. He's an army reservist who is studying to be a neurologist and has a two-year-old son called Boaz. He didn't scream for blood at his mother's graveside, he screamed for peace.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Light relief

Interesting to see how an impressionist goes about his work.

When we lived in England, Rory Bremner was king of the impressionists. Here's John Culshaw - new to me, but he's been around since the good old days of Spitting Image.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Something to be going on with

Barack Obama has been sworn in as the 44th US president. Here is his inauguration speech in full.

My fellow citizens:
I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and co-operation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.

At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

Serious challenges
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many.
They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

Nation of 'risk-takers'
We remain a young nation, but in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and ploughed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

'Remaking America'
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

Restoring trust

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - that a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

'Ready to lead'
As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet. We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

'Era of peace'
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honour them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

'Gift of freedom'
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have travelled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
"Let it be told to the future world... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

For what it's worth

Long, long ago, the Semites lived in the not-yet-Middle-East.

And then Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren....... Oh, and, by the way, Isaac also begat Esau.

In fact Esau and Jacob were twins, and Esau, as the elder, should have inherited all Dad's (and Grandad's) worldly goods, prestige, divine approval, and some really good footnotes in Genesis, Mathew, etc. - but apparently sold his birthright to his brother for .......... wait for it............ 'a mess of pottage'. (Hence the oft-misquoted adage: The way to a man's hearth is through his stomach.)

The upshot was that the descendants of one bro - Jacob -became the Jewish people (aka God's Chosen People); while the descendants of Esau (All together now, "loooozuurrrrrrrr") became .... the Arabs! Interesting huh? Family Drama B.C.

Anyway, the Arabs were of no further interest to the writers of the Old Testament, while the Jews basked in God's love, which must indeed have been lovely. Unfortunately, it would appear that no-one had explained this to the Romans, who presumably thought that the Promised Land had in fact been promised to them - subjectivity can be such a problem between neighbours.....

So the Romans moved in, and waited for the locals to recognise that they were now a conquered people, keep their heads down and their noses clean, pay their taxes, and be good little subjects of Rome. Got that one wrong, didn't you, boys?

(Pop quiz: name one Arab people in the last couple of millennia which has knuckled under to an invader.................. take your time......... see?)

So after a while, the Romans got a little fed up with being constantly dragged away from their banquets and orgies, and never seeing the end of the circuses, all because the bloody locals kept mounting rebellions and holing up in mountain fortresses (where they'd stashed all the best weed too, damn their eyes) and even going so far as to set up some smooth-tongued, appallingly dressed Holly Roller hick from the sticks as their leader - a hippy Peace&LoveMan weirdo who wouldn't know a barber if he bumped into him in downtown Jerusalem on a Thursday night ...... Of course, they sorted him out in the end; with a bit of help from the local Chamber of Commerce (Those guys knew which side their bagel was loxed on.) But the locals were still revolting, so the Romans came up with a Final Solution.
Destroy their Temple and encourage them to LEAVE.
All of them.
Declare their country a non-country.
End of story.

I blame the Romans.

And the 'Wandering Jew' became part of European (eh? Where? Sorry, wrong century.) Christendom's world view. Ah, Christendom (i.e. Amost Everywhere.) named after that Peace&LoveMan man that................ the Jews killed. Hmm. Some people have baggage.

Landless people scatter, assimilate, intermarry........blend. Or just die out. Generations later, their artefacts are dug out of burial chambers and displayed in museums for others to marvel at. Scientists do DNA searches. Curious individuals trace their genealogy, and perhaps discover that Abraham XX begat Isaac LV, begat Jacob CIX, begat Mike, begat Brian, begat Jack - and look! Here's the scan of little Jack! Ah!

On the other hand, expats will often cling to the comfort of traditional ways, celebrate the richness of their own songs, recipes, stories, and festivals. They will send their children to expat or international schools - maybe even boarding schools 'back home'. They will make friends among their own community, creating a base of familiarity and mutual recognition - a microcosm of their old world - from which to step out into the wonderful strangeness of their new home from home - and where they can recharge their sense of a shared identity from time to time. Ex-pats often go 'home' once a year if they can afford it - and while they might complain about the travelling, the endless unpacking and repacking, and the long round of visiting and catching up; in the end, this constant maintenance of the lines between old and new lives and relationships also frees many to get more involved in the culture and experiences that their 'foreign' base has to offer. Many will in fact choose to retire and stay 'abroad'. Most, I think, go 'home' in the end, carrying the memories and influences of their experiences with them.

Expats may feel like exiles at times but, unlike exiles, most know that they can go home eventually.
Exiles. Refugees. Diaspora.
Armenians. Jews. Palestinians.
These can never go home. Sometimes, home no longer exists.

The Armenian diaspora - descendants of the refugees of 1915 - outnumber their cousins 'back home', where the Soviet Union expanded into the space left by the Ottomans.

There are Armenian communities, with their own schools and churches, in the Middle East, Europe and the US. These communities nurture a sense of identity and heritage, and continue to act as pressure groups for a review of the events of 1915 - which Hitler would later acknowledge as, if not his inspiration for the Holocaust, at least an example of what a sufficiently powerful invader - conqueror, to use an old term - could get away with under the disapproving noses of other nations - with ruthless will and watertight organisation.

Yet Armenians also marry outside their own communities, even if this may at times resemble the plot - if not the script - of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.... Life goes on. Cultures mix. Sometimes people are happy, and sometimes not. The usual sort of thing. Perhaps two hundred years from now, people will be tracing their family trees back to a plot of land in Yerevan, as Americans now make pilgrimages to small villages in Ireland.

Yet if Armenians have achieved this balance within a century, it begs the question of why - or how - Jewish culture has managed to not merely survive, but flourish, for two thousand years, in a world where Jews have routinely been reviled and persecuted at every change in the political wind. As with Armenians, and more fortunate Palestinians, Jews have contributed to the communities in which they have settled: some of the most celebrated artists, composers, songwriters, actors, directors, writers......... businessmen.......... surgeons............... intellectuals........... stand-up comedians..................(I'm sorry, but I draw the line at Seinfeld) are Jewish. As in identity, not as in amateur genealogist who discovered an ancestor who might have been a night cleaner in the Temple back in 12 A.D.

I come back to the expats. Not military or relief workers, but teachers, oil engineers, insurance and banking personnel. Life is made easier because most foreign postings are on well-trodden routes which have the infrastructure and cosmopolitan character to accommodate expats. And you've got an Embassy, a passport and a contract. You may be concerned, if you're on a longterm, or open-ended contract, that your circumstances may deprive your children of a central plank of their sense of themselves and their place in the world - not to mention alienating them from cousins and grandparents back home. To avoid this, you are perhaps more careful than you would be back home to preserve habits and traditions that will nurture roots, and enable your 'third culture kids' to grow straight and strong in this exotic environment - and cope with seasonal repotting. Still, you're probably in a safe environment, so you settle, and so do the kids.

There are places where you would not be welcome on political, social or religious grounds, but as a rule of thumb, most international companies are cautious about setting up shop in countries where foreign leaders are burnt in effigy twice a week, and there is a grey area regarding the legality of lynching Customer Service personnel in the absence of a money-back guarantee on electrical goods.


American Bible Belters and Iranian clerics do an equally good job of stirring up resentment, fear and anger among their own, and proselytising their unfortunate point of view, but if your beliefs make you a target for their rhetoric or invective, there are still plenty of places where you and your way of life will be accepted and respected, if not necessarily understood or shared.

Unfortunately for medieval Jews, the sermons and writings of some very influential Christian clerics in the first five centuries A.D. accused Jews of all manner of appalling vices, and made it clear that the Jewish nation were forever culpable, and to be punished for their torture and murder of Jesus Christ.

I blame the Christians.

There are numerous examples, spread across territory and time, of Jews, Christians and Muslims - the People of the Book (i.e. the Bible) - basically agreeing to differ, and co-existing as peacefully as human beings ever can. Yet, writing or preaching to their own Christian congregations, the Church Fathers warned in the most hideous rhetoric against anything that smacked of participating in, watching or enjoying Jewish traditions.The fact that such extreme rhetoric was deemed necessary in order to discourage fraternisation or judaising suggests that the early Christians were entirely too comfortable with their Jewish neighbours for the Christian priests' peace of mind. This was the language of war - for the hearts and minds of their own congregations.

However, as these sermons were published, circulated and debated over the centuries, they came to be treated as justification for making life as difficult as possible for these Christkillers. As inflammatory labels go, that has to be right up there with The Great Satan.

Hitler's Holocaust was merely the most blatant and concentrated assault on Jews - amongst others. For centuries, in many places, Jews were restricted in what cloth their clothes could be made from (though other members of the population also lived with such restrictions in feudal times) in where they could live, how they could earn their living, what thy could own. They were the bogeymen of bedtime stories. If disease broke out or the land flooded or parched or split apart, then God was displeased that Christians were tolerating Jews in their midst. And that would have to be rectified. However easygoing a community might be, and however much business and trade might be done between the peoples of these different faiths, there was ultimately no security, because if a scapegoat or a distraction was needed, then the Jews were it. Round 'em up. Lock 'em up. Burn 'em.

Jewish culture - I would suggest - evolved from being permanent expats on a hardship posting. What doesn't kill you - or every member of your family - makes you strong, encourages self-reliance, co-operation and mutual support. You know who you are. You know what you care about. You know that while you're being harassed from one quarter, you will always be supported from another - by the people who have to deal with all this nonsense too. If you can find a way to make it feels better - music's good, and a sense of humour comes in handy - then so much the better. And if you can learn that it's what you do, not what you have, that matters - and combine that with some self-respect and a serious work ethic - then the world is your oyster, my dear. (And I may well be talking absolute rubbish, but at least I'm trying to work something out!)

Hitler may have pushed the envelope beyond anything previously imagined, but anti-semitism is ingrained in Christian attitudes and practice, and the Christian viewpoint (aggressively defensive) has underpinned the evolution of western philosophy and human society from Russia to the Americas for two thousand years.

However, I'm not bashing Christianity, though it probably appears that way. Human beings are a strange mix of cerebral and physical. At the base of the large upper, more recently evolved part of the human brain lies the hypothalamus, the most ancient and primitive part: anger and fear make this baby light up, and particularly at stages in our life when hormones are washing about, provide the drive that effectively overwhelms the rational higher brain.

Xenophobia - wariness of the unknown - an instinct to protect and justify what is ours - a need to feel justified, secure, part of something; and it's corollary, a need to identify the other (whatever that might be - haircut? religion? cooking smells? colour? generation?) as something to be ignored, converted, rejected, or removed. This is primitive, essential, survival stuff, however we dress it with words. And the words we use to rationalise such feelings and needs can be used to to appeal to those same feelings and needs in others.

Marketing sermons from fifteen hundred years ago are just this little lot in their Christian guise. If it hadn't been Christianity it would have been something else...... oh yes.... let's call it Islam. God may exist, and we may be looking at the same deity from different angles and calling it God, Jehovah, Yahweh or Allah. Or Buddha. Or Ra. But to insist that there is no God/Jehovah/Yahweh/ Allah/Buddha/Ra but God/Jehovah/Yahweh/ Allah/Buddha/Ra, and that if someone disagrees with you, then they are ignorant, wilful, backward, deluded and in need of being saved from themselves - for my money, that's the hypothalamus talking. And when they've got minerals, fossil fuels, aquifers or a virgin market for manufactured goods, then that 'ol hypothalamus is in evil alliance with the upper brain.

I do believe that the League of Nations was pursuing its avowed aim of working to prevent another world war when it decided in 1917 to establish a national home for the Jewish people, all but acknowledging that the Jews had had a very raw deal for a very long time - and it was time everyone made it up to them. I believe - though I'm not sure - that other options had been considered, including a large, unpopulated space in North America. However, we know which patch they chose - a patch of desert with no-one very important on it, who would of course understand that the Jews needed their country back. Colonialist attitudes prevailed.

The UN, which replaced the League of Nations in 1945 after World War II proved how ineffectual it was, seems to have been entirely blind to the needs and rights of the existing Palestinian population - as I say, colonialism, or paternalism perhaps. I don't think that people from highly developed European countries can appreciate what land means to settled people in the Middle East, a place which is still full of community traditions that go back a very long way. Your land is your part of your identity, your link to your grandparents, your gift to your children, the place where you live and are recognised. You don't just relocate. It was only after World War II, when Britain started clearing slums to build streets in the sky that they began to realise that the built environment has other dimensions beside its obvious physical solidity: realised that the physical and emotional connections that run through and between communities are partly shaped by the physical layout of buildings. Architects and townplanners are still working through the implications of this.

In 1947, disregarding the absolute opposition of the Arab League, and in line with best practice at the time (as demonstrated by the British)the UN redrew the map, intending to partition the land into three territories: a Jewish nation, an Arab nation, and a UN buffer zone. The thousands of Arabs who were displaced from land their families had held for generations were not happy. And the rest, of course, is bloodshed.

Israel is a fact. Creating it was an attempt to turn the clock back. Bad move. Trying to do it again? Yeah, that's really going to work.

However, the current map of Israel and Palestine is virtually a negative of the 1946 pre-Partition map (Where have we heard the word partition before? Always good for the locals.)

Israel had to defend itself against its neighbours, but the expansionists, or Zionists of the early years set about driving Palestinians off land that was designated as theirs. Sometimes they worked by stealth, through a blizzard of paperwork and the full weight of bureaucracy, where generations of people had lived in their houses and worked their land, back to a time when - - when - well no, actually there wasn't a formal written contract or bill of sale stating dimensions et. etc. etc., but my great-great-great grandfather bought this land from that family over there - just ask them, they'll tell you - and built this house and.....(Living in Spain, I can say that there are rural properties here that don't have proper boundary maps, but everyone knows that from that ridge there, to this boulder here is ours, and next door's place goes up the hill to that fence......). No papers, or the wrong stamp, or no stamp, or if the paper had your great-uncle's name on it, but he had died childless and given the deed and the place to your father on his deathbed, and your father hadn't got it changed because everyone knew how it was.

Or they built Israeli houses around Palestinian houses, cutting neighbours off.

Or they sent the bulldozers in - to clear out troublemakers. To teach people a lesson. To protect their people from Palestinian harassment and aggression.

Israel has appropriated more and more Palestinian land under the pretext of creating buffer zones to protect its citizens. It's been doing it for half a century. It has allowed the building and occupation of illegal settlements.

Then the Israeli government considers Palestinians unreasonable when they start throwing things? Start arming themselves? Start fighting back? Start thinking it's better to die a martyr and perhaps achieve something than live to be old and broken at 40 like your father?

Better build a fence. Better blockade routes in and out and make it impossible to move raw material or finished goods - impossible for someone to feed his family - impossible for someone to get to hospital when her pregnancy goes badly wrong - impossible to do anything.

Better push them into a life or death struggle, with no right to fight back. Better crowd them into the smallest possible space, so that there's nowhere safe for them to store or fire weapons, and then you can bomb them, and kill hundreds of them, and hold press conferences about these craven cynics who use their own children as shields. Better hit hospitals, UN food stores, schools. Better do it quickly - before January 20th.

And more and more people keep moving to Israel, a place that has been a warzone for decades. You have to wonder why. I expect they'll need houses.

Generations of Palestinians have lived and died in the camps. Other Arab countries won't give them passports, because this would undermine their claim to their land.

Non-Arab countries and international organisations stand in judgement, and when Palestinians elect Hamas to government in free and fair elections, partly in disgust at the bloated self-satisfaction of Yasser Arafat's old guard, and partly because, for years, Hamas has consistently done what no-one else seemed able to do: got food and medicine in to people who would otherwise have starved and died - when that happens, the Free World raises its pale, manicured hands in horror. Those foolish Palestinians, what are they playing at, electing a terrorist organisation? Better cut off their aid. Better let them starve, and succumb to every virus and infection. Better leave another generation of children to grow up physically stunted, uneducated and feral, wide open to the older guys, the heroes, who are doing something to make a difference, who could show them how to make a difference too, if they're brave enough.........
That will teach them.

It doesn't matter how many music programmes and theatre programmes etc. etc. these people manage to come up with to put some hope and colour in their children's lives. It doesn't matter how much parents love their children, or how much teachers can do with almost nothing, and with little or no income. It doesn't even matter how optimistic and enthusiastic the children may be, in the face of all odds. If Israel's intention is to push the Palestinians into a small space and annihilate them once and for all; and the rest of the world is prepared to let Israel do that because those bad Palestinians keep firing rockets into southern Israel, and only elected governments are allowed to fire rockets, because otherwise it's terrorism, and we don't approve of terrorism....................... well, I suppose they'll all be dead in the next 96 hours.

That'll teach 'em.

Everyone has to stop fighting, decide what moral and physical territory they're prepared to give up, and go talk to each other, listen to each other, and make it happen.

Northern Ireland seemed a lost cause to me as I grew up, but they've just about got themselves sorted. It can be done.

What is the point of any more people - Israelis or Palestinians - living in fear and suspicion - and then dying in a moment, and the whole nightmare constantly repeating and growing? I can't see it myself.

Does anyone else suspect a long game plan?

P.S. Quick! Let's wipe 'em out before January 20th......... Over to you, Jon.


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