25th April 2005
In her review (May) of the new Dictionary of National Biography, Margaret Drabble says: “It is interesting how many of those involved with the creation of the London Zoo were Marxists.” But London Zoo was founded in the 1820s, long before anybody had heard of Marx.
21st April 2005
Guy Bellairs (Letters, May) falls into the common trap of thinking that the nautical distress signal involves flying the union flag upside-down. You would be hard pressed to tell which way up it was at any distance at sea! In fact, the distress signal involves flying the red (or white) ensign, with the union jack in one corner, upside-down. This is a much more obvious and visible signal.
University of Sussex
Quixote in Las Vegas
7th May 2005
I enjoyed Julian Evans’s essay on Don Quixote (May) but I would like to add Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Evans’s list of works that have borrowed Cervantes’s model. Surely the narrator and his “attorney” are the knight and his squire, with the drug-fuelled hallucinations in Las Vegas analagous to chivalric illusions in imperial Castile?
German music hegemony
25th April 2005
In his review “A unified theory of music” (April) Roderick Swanston says: “Schoenberg is once supposed to have said that after the evolution of the 12-tone technique he had found a way of continuing the dominance of German music for another century.” But Schoenberg would never have said such a thing seriously. What he cared about was the fact that classical music was at a theoretical dead end, while he heard all these sounds that were not represented in standard classical music.
Well done Daily Mail
25th April 2005
I was surprised at Paul Barker’s surprise at the Daily Mail (May). Barker asks: “Who would have expected the Mail to point the finger at the presumed killers of Stephen Lawrence?” I am not a Mail reader, but have always admired its colour-blind approach to aspiration. Stephen Lawrence embodied the values of middle England: work hard at school, keep out of trouble, aim for university and aspire to a professional job. Those accused of his murder behaved by a different set of rules. The fact that they were white and Stephen Lawrence was black was irrelevant. The Mail knows that the values of middle England need to be passed from one generation to another if they are to survive. To have failed to support the Lawrence family in their fight for justice would have been to betray all those middle England families who encourage, cajole, bribe or browbeat their teenage children to behave as Stephen did.
Britain’s smart scientists
21st April 2005
Stephen Ashworth (Letters, May) seems unnecessarily concerned about the British presence in space. It is true that it has been the policy of successive governments not to fund manned space travel, but our contribution to satellite missions should not be dismissed with a reference to Beagle’s unfortunate end. To give a few examples: Beagle was carried to Mars by Mars Express, which had much British involvement, as has the SMART-1 mission to the moon and the Huygens probe, which landed spectacularly on Saturn’s moon Titian. And two of the instruments on board Nasa’s Swift mission to study the violent explosions known as gamma-ray bursts are British-built.
University College London
10th April 2005
Nowhere is the smug solipsism of western-centric culture today more evident than in philosophy. Paul Broks (April) quotes Donald Hoffman daringly suggesting that consciousness alone exists; he should look up various ancient Indian Upanishad texts (c1000BC) which ask if reality is consciousness alone. He refers to Unamuno’s paradox on how experience tells us nothing about death; he should look up the story of Zhuangzi’s wife’s death in the Daoist classic The Zhuangzi, where the Chinese philosopher uses precisely this insight to suggest that death should not torment us because it is no experience at all. As for Broks’s paradox that we believe in dualism even when we know it to be wrong, that is at the heart of the motivation in analysing and rejecting ordinary senses of self in practically every Buddhist and Hindu classical school of thought. There is rather a lot of philosophy outside the west and it might be fruitful to discover something about it.
28th April 2005
I hope Michael Prowse’s dewy-eyed appeal for consensual politics (May) doesn’t put anyone off electoral reform. As Prowse acknowledges, the Jenkins commission explicitly rejected a purer form of PR partly because the requirement for consensus might lead to necessary reforms forever being blocked by vested interests. Far from encouraging long-termism, consensual politics can be conservative, short-termist and shackled by producer interests.
The commission was also concerned to avoid a situation where governments are systematically formed not by the vote of the people, but by negotiation between parties behind closed doors. In Germany, for example, the only change of chancellor between 1974 and 1998 took place not following an election, but when the Free Democrats (a small third party) decided to change their coalition partner in 1982. Excessively proportional systems can suffer from the same defects as first past the post: a grossly disproportionate distribution of power, and a dim relationship between what people vote for and what they get.
But there is a compelling case for milder electoral reform of the kind envisaged by Roy Jenkins. The most powerful argument is that it would dramatically increase the proportion of electors whose votes have a chance of counting for something. This is not only desirable in itself, it would also have the effect of forcing political parties to broaden their appeal beyond the ubiquitous “hard-working families” in suburbs and provincial towns. The desire for consensual politics is not just a red herring—it is a weakness in the armoury of many campaigners for electoral reform.
Secretary to Jenkins commission
21st April 2005
John Salt and James Clarke (May) have made a valuable contribution to the current debate on immigration. However, their report contains one very misleading statement. The total UK population is predicted to rise by 6.146m between 2003 and 2031. They say that 3.64m (59 per cent) of this increase is due to migration and the remaining 2.506m to natural change. This statement ignores the fact that most of the natural increase is also due to migration. Migration will augment the population of child-bearing age, and this will increase the number of children who are born. (There will also be some extra deaths.) Official projections estimate that because of migration there will be an extra 1.6m children born in the UK between 2003 and 2031 and less than 0.1m extra deaths. When these indirect effects are included, it turns out that migration accounts for 5.181m of the predicted increase of 6.146m in population. With zero net migration (same number arriving as leaving) the population would rise by a predicted 0.965m. Thus 84 per cent of the projected increase in population is due to migration, and not 54 per cent as Salt and Clarke imply.
Poetic Iranian cinema
27th April 2005
Mark Cousins’s piece (May) on Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was interesting, but he exaggerates the influence of Islamic censorship on Kiarostami’s work. Kiarostami was making films before the Islamisation of Iran and he expresses the general tendency of Iranians to take a poetic look at humanity. It is true that Islamic restrictions encouraged filmmakers to dig into their souls rather than into commercial plots driven by sex and violence. But the contemporary Iranian film scene has to do more with Iranians than with Islam.
5th May 2005
As an expatriate living in Thailand—I work on the new Bangkok international airport, am married to a Thai woman and have a seven-year-old daughter—I appreciated Alex Renton’s balanced view of the Thai sex industry (May). However, he wrongly attributes the roots of the industry to US troops during the Vietnam war. Then, as now, the bulk of the sex trade was domestic. Concubinage has been a part of Thai life for as long as there has been Thai life. Married men keep their mia noi (little wife) as a matter of course. These are easier to change at will than the formally married wife. And Thai men are notoriously fickle.
The Koran and extremism
8th March 2005
Kenan Malik’s piece on the myth of Islamophobia (February) did not mention the Koran. But it is interesting to note that prior to 9/11, the English translation of the Koran by Shakir was said to be the translation closest to the true meaning of the original, Arabic version.
In the months before 9/11, many web pages containing content related to Islam, including some originating in Britain, had at the bottom of the page the numbers 9:30. After 9/11 and talk of Muslim terrorists, I thought to look in the Koran and found the following passage: “9:30 And the Jews say: Uzair is the son of Allah; and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah; these are the words of their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before; may Allah destroy them; how they are turned away!”
After 9/11, Muslim groups, including the Muslim Council of Britain, announced that the English translation by Yusuf Ali more accurately reflected the true meaning of the Koran. I would hope the reason is that the Yusuf Ali translation is more moderate and does not call for the destruction of Judaism and Christianity, and that Yusuf Ali more accurately reflects the interpretation of the Koran more acceptable to moderate Muslims. But unless scholars and leaders from the Muslim Council of Britain and other organisations publicly state that the Koran contains some historic verses that no longer apply to the modern world, I fear Muslims will continue to be mistrusted.