Archive for January, 2009

The letter heard round the world

One of the most important skills for a budding journalist to learn is to treat everything as an opportunity to improve.

Every article, blog or broadcast is a source of new and exciting information. Any scrap of paper that crosses your path is potential fodder for a young and hungry mind.

So it was with absolute glee that I stumbled upon this most perfect piece of prose. For all who read this, all I can say is stop, listen and learn to what must be the greatest letter of complaint since the Bible:

Dear Mr Branson

REF: Mumbai to Heathrow 7th December 2008

I love the Virgin brand, I really do which is why I continue to use it despite a series of unfortunate incidents over the last few years. This latest incident takes the biscuit.

Ironically, by the end of the flight I would have gladly paid over a thousand rupees for a single biscuit following the culinary journey of hell I was subjected to at thehands of your corporation.

Look at this Richard. Just look at it:


I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the desert?

You don’t get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it’s next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That’s got to be the clue hasn’t it. No sane person would serve a desert with a tomato would they. Well answer me this Richard, what sort of animal would serve a desert with peas in:


I know it looks like a baaji but it’s in custard Richard, custard. It must be the pudding. Well you’ll be fascinated to hear that it wasn’t custard. It was a sour gel with a clear oil on top. It’s only redeeming feature was that it managed to be so alien to my palette that it took away the taste of the curry emanating from our miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter. Perhaps the meal on the left might be the desert after all.

Anyway, this is all irrelevant at the moment. I was raised strictly but neatly by my parents and if they knew I had started desert before the main course, a sponge shaft would be the least of my worries. So lets peel back the tin-foil on the main dish and see what’s on offer.

I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being a twelve year old boy Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat their with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out the catalogue and wrote to Santa about.

Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this:


Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s more of that Baaji custard. I admit I thought the same too, but no. It’s mustard Richard. MUSTARD. More mustard than any man could consume in a month. On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.

Once it was regurgitated it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard. Everybody likes a bit of mustard Richard.

By now I was actually starting to feel a little hypoglycaemic. I needed a sugar hit. Luckily there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier due to it’s baffling presentation:


It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.

I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was relax but obviously I had to sit with that mess in front of me for half an hour. I swear the sponge shafts moved at one point.

Once cleared, I decided to relax with a bit of your world-famous onboard entertainment. I switched it on:


I apologise for the quality of the photo, it’s just it was incredibly hard to capture Boris Johnson’s face through the flickering white lines running up and down the screen. Perhaps it would be better on another channel:


Is that Ray Liotta? A question I found myself asking over and over again throughout the gruelling half-hour I attempted to watch the film like this. After that I switched off. I’d had enough. I was the hungriest I’d been in my adult life and I had a splitting headache from squinting at a crackling screen.

My only option was to simply stare at the seat in front and wait for either food, or sleep. Neither came for an incredibly long time. But when it did it surpassed my wildest expectations:


Yes! It’s another crime-scene cookie. Only this time you dunk it in the white stuff.

Richard…. What is that white stuff? It looked like it was going to be yoghurt. It finally dawned on me what it was after staring at it. It was a mixture between the Baaji custard and the Mustard sauce. It reminded me of my first week at university. I had overheard that you could make a drink by mixing vodka and refreshers. I lied to my new friends and told them I’d done it loads of times. When I attempted to make the drink in a big bowl it formed a cheese Richard, a cheese. That cheese looked a lot like your baaji-mustard.

So that was that Richard. I didn’t eat a bloody thing. My only question is: How can you live like this? I can’t imagine what dinner round your house is like, it must be like something out of a nature documentary.

As I said at the start I love your brand, I really do. It’s just a shame such a simple thing could bring it crashing to it’s knees and begging for sustenance.

Yours Sincererly…

Born to be wild

I like to pride myself on being something of a time-wasting connoisseur. Give me an afternoon and I will show you how to do sod all, and take pride in it.

But today I realised that I was playing in the junior league compared to the world of academia across the pond.

According to a report in the Guardian, research by a team of American scientists has come to the astounding conclusion that the rise of the novel in the last eighteenth century “not only reflected the values of Victorian society, but also shaped them.”

Researchers asked 500 academics to rate the personality traits of characters from 201 classic Victorian novels and came up with this gobbet of wisdom:

“Archetypal novels from the time extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted co-operation and affability against individuals’ huger for power and dominance”

As an ex-English student, I am perfectly aware that I may have something of a chip on my shoulder, but this strikes me as the most ludicrous waste of time and money I have heard of since I read about someone sponsored to work out the equation to describe how a ball of paper crumples. middlemarch

Even the most mediocre of A-level student could have told them that. In fact, anyone who has ever managed the briefest flick through a Victorian novel – the examples named being Middlemarch, Dracula and Wuthering Heights – could have picked it up before the end of the first chapter.

Furthermore, it is not only bad science, it is bad literary criticism. The article goes on to explain:

“They found that leading characters fell into groups that mirrored the co-operative nature of a hunter-gatherer society, where individual urges for power and wealth were suppressed for the good of the community”

So, society good, individualism bad, is that what we’re meant to learn from this insightful study?

Well, if the evolutionary psychologists in question had done their homework, they might have realised that history is, in fact, stranger than fiction.

While Jane Austen was carving her “little bit of ivory”, working on the first drafts of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensiblity, two men were writing an introduction to a collection of poems that heralded a new era in how man understood himself.

The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is generally regarded at the beginning and manifesto of British Romanticism.

In it, they reject the studied artistry of their predecessors, arguing instead that poetry should be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” composed by a man “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility [who has] also thought long and deeply.” rebel

That image of the haunted individual, isolated by his superior understanding, has played on our imaginations in its various forms ever since.

From the pages of Wuthering Heights to the James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, the image of the lone wolf has become the heart throb of generations.

Aspiration, drive, individualism – these are the features we admire most in today’s capitalist society. We may pay lip service to Mother Theresa, nod sagely at Ghandi, but if it came to the choice, how many of us would, really and truly, chose their lives of sacrifice over that of Warren Buffett?

To say that our genes have been writen by the pages of Middlemarch not only misunderstands fundamental traits of the human character, but also the literature of the period.

As Einstein put it: “The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

Through a glass darkly: bias in Western news

A report today published by Al Jazeera has highlighted the bias of the Western press in reporting the conflict in Gaza.

Habib Battah compares the photographs of two women, one Israeli and one Palestinian, that were published side-by-side on the front page of an edition of The Washington Post last month. He writes:

“As the Palestinian woman cradled the dead body of one child, another infant son, his face blackened and disfigured with bruises, cried beside her

“The Israeli woman did not appear to be wounded in any way but also wept.”

When the photographs of the two women were published on December 30, over 350 Palestinians had reportedly been killed compared to just four Israelis. Battah argues that the disparity between the suffering on the two sides has not been reflected in the US media which strongly favours Israel.

In Britain, the freedom of the press is seen as a bastion of our society, even if we do not always value it. We descry the censorship of oppressive regimes, yet the bias in Western reporting is far more pervasive and, in many ways, far more dangerous.

Since Bush launched his “war on terror” in 2001, the conflict between the Muslim world and the West has extended into the discourse of the media. Words themselves have become a battleground and the men that print them, the purveyors of truth.

One of the most notorious figures of the world-wide media is Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch, who owns News International is one of the most powerful and influencial men in the world and provided the basis for evil genius Eliot Carver in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

He is also a staunch and outspoken supporter of Israel.

The News International empire, worth US $43 billion, spans the globe and includes The Washington Post, The Sun, The Times, Sky and Fox. It also is the majority shareholder in NDS, a digital technology company based in Jerusalem,  which has grown from 20 to 600 employees in the past decade.

According to the Jerusalem Post, News International was one of three US companies lauded for their support of Israel at the America-Israel Friendship League Partners for Democracy Awards dinner in 2001. Murdoch himself co-chaired the dinner.

While every person has a right to their political views, Rupert Murdoch is not any old person. Over the years executives and editors alike have criticised the level of control he exerts over his publications.

Last January, the former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil told the Lords Communications Committee that although he did not hold the title, Murdoch effectively acts as editor-in-chief of many of his newspapers.

When Murdoch bought The Washington Post in 2007, many feared that his particular brand of newsmongering would pervade the pages of one of the most highly-respected publications in the US.

One incensed blogger wrote: “Murdoch will defile it and turn it into another example of his legendarily low-brow offerings.”

Yet Murdoch is not the only guilty party. Israel has prevented journalists from entering the Gaza strip since the onslaught began more than 2 weeks ago, despite a high court ruling that ordered them to allow in foreign reporters. Al Jazeera is the only channel with a correspondent on the strip.

Israel has also begun to target news organisations in Gaza itself, bringing back memories of the American bombings of Al Jazeera in the Iraq war.

Journalists have been forced to rely solely on UN figures for information, which are based on reports from medical organisations on the ground. Out of the 854 people confirmed dead, the UN claim 25 per cent are women and children.

However, when this is reported in the Western press “women and children” has magically been changed into the far less specific term “civilians”. While not overtly stated, this implies that the rest must be militants.

The Gazan people, dying in their hundreds, have been cast as the agressors in our press. Conversely, Hamas claims that because there is enforced conscription in Israel, many of the Israeli figures claim that civilians are soldiers.

Robert Fisk in the introduction to Pity the Nation, which tells the chequered history of modern Lebanon, writes: “At best, journalists sit on the edge of history as volcanologists might clamber to the lip of a smoking crater, trying to see over the rim, craning their necks to peer over the crumbling edge, through the smoke an the ash of what happens within.”

We can only ever see the truth of what is around us through a glass darkly. Yet it is the responsibility of every journalist and ever reader to strain to see the light.

Swinging politics

In a political jungle where Labour can change its spots as often as its cabinet and the Tories have become the kings of the swingers, its good to know that some things never change.

However much Cameron may try to convince us that the New Conservatives are as sweet and cuddly as the Andrex Puppy, far beyond the sprawl of London, the carrion crows of the old-Tories sit picking over the carcass of our ‘broken England’.

And Gerald Warner has a bigger appetite than most. “The Tories,” he says, “are not hungry enough, so power may elude them.”

Unlike the “Prussian discipline of New Labour in the run-up to the 1997 general election” in which “anything and anybody that went ‘off message’ was ruthlessly expunged”, the Tories have dropped the baton by allowing members of the shadow to, shock horror, indulge themselves in civil partnerships.

This week, “rising star” of the Conservatives Nick Herbert married his long-term boyfriend Jason Eades in a low-key ceremony in Lambeth town hall. David Cameron is said to have sent them a congratulatory message.

Last year, Alan Duncan, the first openly gay Conservative MP, married his boyfriend James Dunseath.

This, according to Warner, is “totally out of touch with mainstream Britain” that will leave the Tories open to “bawdy ridicule.” He writes:

“David Cameron should have compelled members of his shadow cabinet to choose between flamboyand self-indulgence and their ministerial careers”

When, exactly, did being gay become “flamboyant self-indulgence”? One in five gay people have been attacked due to their sexuality in the UK in the past three years, with one in six subjected to physical assaults, according to a survey by YouGov.

Of the 1,700 people questioned, one in eight had been subjected to unwanted sexual contact and almost nine in 10 had experienced homophobic insults and harassment.

However, three-quarters did not report the incidents to the police because they did not believe it would be investigated, and only 1% of incidents reported resulted in a conviction.

To put this in perspective, the shockingly-low and much maligned conviction rate for rape cases is 5.7%.

Gerald Warner is nothing more than a dinosaur relic of the late-Conservative era. If the Tories do lose, it will not be because of their attempts to reconcile themselves with the diversity of modern British society, but because of the harpings of Neanderthals like Warner that just re-inforce the worst image of the old-school right.

Faith in the future

The smell of goat hair hangs thick upon the air and the rich texture of the prayer mats rubs between my toes. Stillness reigns; sunlight falls through the stained-glass window while outside the buzz of the City, muffled by the surrounding buildings, fades into a distant hum.

This is the Tent, a multi-faith space where people of any religion can come together to explore the relationship between faith and conflict. It is part of the St Ethelberga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, constructed on the site of a medieval Church after it was devastated by an IRA bomb in 1993.

The 16-sided structure was built according to traditional Bedouin techniques using materials from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon and stained-glass from Britain. Its clientele are as diverse: in the first three years after it opened in its current incarnation in 2002, it had 20,000 visitors from 39 countries.

Justine Huxley, Interfaith Projects Coordinator for St Ethelberga’s, says: “The Tent is an inclusive space where people can discuss questions of shared devotion. It is a very unique environment; somewhere you can create a level playing field.”

A pocket of tranquillity in the heart of the City, it is hard to believe that only 50 metres away is the bustle of Liverpool St Station and beyond, the mighty shrines to capitalism of the London skyline.

Huxley believes that:

“Our location is a mystery we haven’t quite solved”

Herself a retired trader for Deutsche Bank with a doctorate in psychology, she left the seductions of the City when she converted to Sufism – a mystical branch of Islam – ten years ago.

During her three years on the trading floor, she can only remember having one conversation about spirituality. She believes this “reflects the materialism and consumerism in our culture.”

Huxley is not alone in this belief. Religious leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the government and last week, five Bishops of the Church of England condemned the fruits of Labour’s term in office. A poll of the General Synod, the Church’s parliament, by the Telegraph found that 86 per cent of Bishops supported their actions.

The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester, said: “The Government has acted scandalously. This is not just an economic issue, but a moral one. It’s about what we value.

“The Government believes that money can answer all of the problems and has encouraged greed and a love of money that the Bible says is the root of all evil.”

The Church has a long history of holding the government to account. From the moment that Henry VIII broke with Rome, the fate of the Anglican establishment has been intimately linked to politics. Yet the political clout of the Church has been in sharp decline for decades.

In the 2001 census, 37.3 million people stated their religion as Christian, yet congregations are dwindling and in 2006, the number of marriages in the UK fell to its lowest rate since records began.

The number of priests in England and Wales has slumped by nearly a quarter in 20 years, from 4,545 in 1985 to 3,643 in 2005.

The primacy of the Anglican Church in British politics is fading as religious diversity grows and is replaced by a new emphasis on inter-faith dialogue.

In November, the House of Lords’ procedure committee is considering replacing traditional Anglican prayers at the daily opening of Parliament with multi-faith prayers modeled on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

In response, Andy Burham, the Culture Secretary, has called for churches that were falling into misuse to be turned into cafes, gyms and inter-faith centres.

Churches have a “new, multi-faith, multi-racial community to serve,” he said.

“’We need to find new purposes with the support of the local community and we need to increase secular interest in our church heritage”

Huxley acknowledges this change, although she still believes there are many hurdles to clear before people of different faiths can truly understand each other.

Faith, be it in religion or the secular tenets that rule much of our lives, has been tested to its very core in recent months. Watching the news, it is hard to believe that it breeds nothing more than hatred and violence.

“There are some areas that are irreconcilable”, she says. “Christians and Muslims talking about the nature of God are never going to agree. But we can still learn from each other.”

January 2009

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