You can listen here, on ABC Late Night Live, to Australian lawyer Jonathan Morrow, an adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government, talking to Phillip Adams. Start 14 minutes in - the conversation lasts about 18 minutes. (Thanks: Jim Nolan.)
You push open your front door and breathe in the smell of home, humming a few bars from 'The March of the Toreadors'. There's a young man behind you. He's probably your grandson.
A cobweb gently strokes your face. You flick a switch but the light stays off.
'You were going to show me some slides,' says the young man who might be your grandson.
You pause. The slides are upstairs.
You nod. 'Upstairs.'
Your old bed is just as you left it. On your desk four paintbrushes sit in a pot of water. The wooden handles have begun to slime.
A loud whirring breaks the silence. Your grandson has turned on the slide projector and a cold bright square of light appears on the wall. He picks up a slide. 'Journey to India... Nineteen sixty-five,' he reads, as the projector jolts into action, click-clacking through the transparencies.
You see a middle-aged man sat on a battered blue scooter. The same man stood on a dusty road, mountains towering above him; and then hunkering down by a campfire, wrapped in a tartan blanket; and then gazing up at the Taj Mahal; and then on the dockside with the battered scooter again.
You know you know that man.
'How old were you then, Eddie?' asks your grandson-who's-not-your-grandson.
But all the words have gone and instead come thoughts of a tarmac road and those terrible endless skies.
And you smile, hugely.
[The second short short story series is announced and explained here.]
John Gray takes the path increasingly being trodden by the confidently 'knowing' of our time. He announces the end of the 'era of liberal interventionism in international affairs'. His reason? The outcome, the disaster, in Iraq. Gray's concluding paragraphs say this:
Many will caution against throwing out the baby of humanitarian military intervention together with the neocon bathwater. No doubt the idea that western states can project their values by force of arms gives a sense of importance to those who believe it. It tells them they are still the chief actors on the world stage, the vanguard of human progress that embodies the meaning of history. But this liberal creed is a dangerous conceit if applied to today's intractable conflicts, where resource wars are entwined with wars of religion and western power is in retreat.
The liberal interventionism that took root in the aftermath of the cold war was never much more than a combination of post-imperial nostalgia with crackpot geopolitics. It was an absurd and repugnant mixture, and one whose passing there is no reason to regret. What the world needs from western governments is not another nonsensical crusade. It is a dose of realism and a little humility.
Now, either Gray means what he says, or he doesn't really. If he doesn't, it's not clear to me why he would take up time and space setting it out. So I assume he does mean it. This being the case, he thinks not that the idea of humanitarian intervention has been discredited in the eyes only of others; he thinks that it's a good thing that its era is now over - it should be over. Gray thinks not just that the war in Iraq exemplified 'a dangerous conceit', but that any intervention, in any circumstances, would do so. He thinks not that we need to specify criteria for when humanitarian intervention would be justified and when not, but that we need to give up on the idea altogether.
He ought to follow through and spell out the logical end point of his thinking - on the principle that it's as well not to hide from yourself the furthest consequence of your own commitments. Gray's view amounts to this: that even in the face of genocide, of crimes against humanity on however terrible a scale, of a humanitarian crisis protected, so to say, by the rights of sovereignty of the state in which it is occurring, no humanitarian intervention can ever be justified, let alone prudent.
Another Rwanda? Another Auschwitz? Anything at all? Forget it.
Those friendly towards the project of developing a more adequate and effective system of international law might like to reflect on what kind of law you can have where there are no mechanisms to prevent even the worst crimes under that law, or to intervene to stop them when they are in progress.
In the New York Times, Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack register some progress in Iraq, without denying the grave problems that remain:
Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily "victory" but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.
According to the report:
-- Four million Iraqis - 15% - regularly cannot buy enough to eat.
-- 70% are without adequate water supplies, compared to 50% in 2003.
-- 28% of children are malnourished, compared to 19% before the 2003 invasion.
-- 92% of Iraqi children suffer learning problems, mostly due to the climate of fear.
-- More than two million people - mostly women and children - have been displaced inside Iraq.
-- A further two million Iraqis have become refugees, mainly in Syria and Jordan.
See also here, here and - for the full report - here [pdf]. Oxfam is calling on countries without troops in Iraq to send more aid.
It's also the case, isn't it, that Madeleine Bunting has written a column in which she seems surprised that Britons are interested in the countryside. Yet a yearning for a pastoral ideal and a fascination with the rhythms (and supposed "authenticity") of rural life has only been one of the most significant elements of British literary culture for, oh, more than two hundred years. In fact it's been that way ever since people started moving to the city. Chap called Shakespeare wrote some stuff about this. Big concern in Georgian Britain too, to say nothing of the Victorians. Indeed, interest in the countryside increases as the proportion of the population actually living in the country decreases. This is not surprising.
Odd too that she should conclude her column with a quotation from John Muir (complete with sloppy use of "legendary"). She seems unaware that Muir was British too (Scottish if one wants to be more specific) and that his writing therefore demonstrates continuity, not change. Nothing new here.
Now as it happens I'm all for cultivating an aesthetic appreciation for the countryside (though not at all or any cost), but I defy anyone to explain what this means:
The floods in Yorkshire last month were a sharp reminder of what happens when we don't understand the land on which we live. The sight of thousands of flooded homes made us realise what many previous generations would never have forgotten about the way in which water has to move through land.
Julian Baggini on The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
As a young boy, I often found myself spending a rainy school holiday afternoon or a wet weekend watching whatever film was on one of the three channels we had to be content with. More than once that film was John Sturges's 1958 version of The Old Man and The Sea, starring Spencer Tracy. To a not particularly precocious youth, whose cultural horizons were pretty limited, it struck me as very odd movie indeed. Most of the 'action' comprised an old man sitting in his boat, which was obviously on a studio set, trying to catch, and then bring home, a fish. Dialogue comprised either Tracey talking to himself or to the fish, which refused to talk back. Yet it was all strangely compelling. I'm sure I didn't get it, but this was before I learned that 'getting' a work of art required being able to say 'what it means', so perhaps that didn't matter.
I haven't seen the film since, and for all I know it might be quite awful. But I did later read the novella, or short story, whatever you want to call it. I had discovered Hemingway via a couple of his war novels, For Whom The Bell Tolls and A Farewell To Arms. I had found these strangely compelling too, even though I wasn't sure what they had to say either, other than the fact that men can be quite hard and war is terrible.
Remembering that odd film, I decided I'd try The Old Man and The Sea next. It was like nothing else I had read. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it all seemed very inconsequential. The prose was sparse, the story slight, and Hemingway never authorially intervened to pass existential comment on what was going on. It seemed not much ado about not much, but yet again, it gripped me. It was only when I finished the book that the cumulative effect of the story hit me.
What the book had done was not just to create a world, but to conjure up a form of life. I had felt from the inside something of what it means to live your life in a particular kind of relation to nature, which a suburban 20th century Briton could never have experienced first hand. That someone could love and revere the sea and all that lives in it, while wanting to hunt and kill fish was not something I had previously understood. Yet Hemingway had shown me this was indeed possible.
Not that this was a romantic portrayal of a man living in close harmony with nature. The old man's life had always been a struggle and now he was struggling more than ever. You know and he knows that this is the last time he'll undertake such a bruising fight. He was not going gentle into that goodnight, but going he certainly was. Perhaps that's one reason why his struggle with the fish seems such a virtuous one: humans cannot conquer nature and nor can they just hold hands with it and skip along the lane singing la-di-da. Life consists in wrestling with nature, knowing you will lose in the end, and perhaps that's why you are justified in fighting as hard as you can before you do.
Being close to nature, fully respecting it, means acknowledging its cruelty as well as its beauty. The modern, urban human being finds it hard to do both: either nature is a gentle earth mother to be loved and embraced, or it is a savage force to be tamed. Hemingway's old man shows that, in fact, it is both.
Books like this do what argument and reasoning cannot. You can describe, as I have attempted to do, something of what the old man's form of life is like, but telling is no substitute for showing. I assume this is what philosophers like Martha Nussbaum mean when they say that fiction is important for our moral development.
For me personally, The Old Man and The Sea is one reason why I am not quite a vegetarian, despite tending that way. I hardly eat any meat because I disapprove of the way much of it is produced. But Hemingway challenged the view which was trying to get a grip on my mind at the time - that respect for animal life was incompatible with killing it. I would like to think my distaste for factory-farmed meat is not just founded on modern squeamishness, but shares at least some of the reverence for life the old man exemplifies. For that reason, I think The Old Man and The Sea is as valuable a read for people troubled by how we treat animals today as anything by systematic animal ethicists such as Peter Singer.
[All the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, are listed here, here and here.]
Just a quick note from Jakarta where I am conducting a seminar today... I took my guest speakers - from Europe, North America, Asia and from within Indonesia, Papua and Aceh - to the game last night. It was sensational. The 40,000+ locals were right behind Iraq from the kick-off. Under a bright, clear full moon. Deafening. The Iraqi players kept indicating to the crowd to keep up the barracking...
The support for Iraq was partly sentimental for Iraq's tragic position and as the under-dogs...
[I]t was a fairy tale ending for the Asian Cup and Jakarta was a happy town last night. At the conclusion of the game, the crowd even cheered its own good behaviour with chants of Indonesia! Indonesia!
The game told its own story, particularly the black armbands worn by the Iraqis to remind them of the 50+ killed back home by suicide bombers who'd attacked people celebrating the semi-final win.
See the bar-room of the pub; see the dark tables stained by the sweat of a million hands; see the dusty floorboards discovered last year after generations suffocated under an adhesive carpet of escaped top-ups. See the bar, copper-topped and dully polished, ragged towels to mop the spills and useless ashtrays.
See the barman, godlike in his shirt sleeves, plans on his mind for after the holidays. See his efficiency as he fills each order, each combination of beer, crisps, orange juice, glass of white wine, and see how he simultaneously flirts with the landlady; she, bosomy in a convenient way. See her thoughts as she worries about the meeting with the man from the brewery, see her sublimate that fear with excessive bonhomie to all her subjects.
See, now, the punter, propped on a stool, lingering over the dregs of his beer. See his day-tired suit; crumpled tie poking from a pocket like an invitation to talk. See his reluctance to talk, reflected in his eyes as he reviews his day - the pointless meetings and meaningless work. See him sitting there, unaware of the swirl of events about to deliver its verdict as soon as he passes through the door.
[The second short short story series is announced and explained here.]
[H]ow many of us see stars on a regular basis? Or remember the feeling of getting wet or cold? Or see the thick darkness of a night free of city street lights, or hear the call of an owl at night?
OK, let's reckon up. See stars on a regular basis? Yup. Remember the feeling of getting wet? Too right. Remember the feeling of being cold? Check. See the thick darkness etc? That one, fair enough - not too much of it. Hear the call of an owl at night? Often. So it's four out of five. And I'm not living in some field in Herefordshire or on the side of a Scottish mountain; no, this is in Manchester, one of the larger conurbations in Britain.
It's the school of opinion journalism that tells you you can produce any feeble generalization you want, in order to bemoan the sorry state of things today. From Bunting's keyboard it regularly delivers such goodies. She it was who gave you that we now 'seem more anxious, and fearful than ever' - and 'how isolated and fragmented our lives are'. And she, too, who lamented the 'mindless absorption in passing desires'. With a fecundity that is hard to match, she has also told it that:
The increasing impatience of consumer cycles means that anyone who is not devoting inordinate amounts of their weekend to shopping and browsing magazines is just not cutting it.
And she has worried (in the same place) about today's 'anti-natalism' - 'a bias against having babies'. It's enough to make a person feel glum.
Really, I don't want to come across like someone who thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds. There are problems. But does Madeleine not know anyone who leads a good and happy life?