Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Holiday Reads, Part 3: "On Beauty"

Headline: a great talent, a little burdened by the easy cliché

I’ve been struggling to write something on “On Beauty” for a while. I think Zadie Smith is a terribly talented writer, but my response to this novel is a little ambivalent.

Let’s start with the good. Smith’s prose is exceptional. Her ear for speech and dialogue is fabulous, and her ability to inhabit the skin of a character regardless of age or gender compelling.

The story gets off to an interesting start. The Belseys are a mixed race family: Howard is a British academic living in the US who has trouble with faculty politics and thus getting tenure; Kiki is a black American woman, political rather than intellectual, and a hospital administrator. The marriage thus embodies some neat tensions of class, politics, practice/theory, and culture: boundaries the children of the marriage need to negotiate.

It is a tribute to her sympathy for her characters that despite all the stupid, hurtful and wilfully self-obsessed things Howard Belsey does, I found it impossible to entirely dislike him. Indeed, I felt a certain sympathy for him, which Smith seems to feel herself. This is pulled off not through any especially redeeming features on Howard’s part, but because (as with all the characters) when we see the world through his eyes, it is drawn so compellingly in Smith’s lush observational prose.

Also, Howard finishes the novel humbled if not repentant. Ultimately, despite all the damage done to himself and others, Howard’s acts seem adolescent rather than mercenary. He profits little by them and does not really aim to; he stumbles into things out of a failure to appreciate consequences which a man should really have outgrown by his fifties.

However, by writing in the mode of affectionate academic satire, there are ideas the Smith excuses herself from pushing further. Howard’s refusal to engage with emotion or aesthetics (he claims to hate Mozart and has founded an academic career on the idea of Rembrandt as a merely competent tradesman) comes off as wilful affectation. Rather than portray him as one “clinging to his rhetoric of disenchantment as if it were a religion” (to quote an excellent Slate article), Smith leaves Howard apparently without strong beliefs - making many of his actions seem like parts of a childish game.

More to the point, Smith creates a bevvy of interesting characters some of whom dissapointingly lapse into jargon or ultimately conform to stereotype before simply evaporating by the end of the novel. The final moments of confrontation and resolution also seem rather, well, stage-managed.

Smith has the potential to be a writer of much wider scope, and I’d hate to see her lose her warmth and humour to write “serious social novels”; but somehow when her novels come to rest on comedy and satire for their resolution it feels a little like cheating.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Holiday reads part 2:
Brett Easton Ellis, “Lunar Park”

Headline: Beth said it best

I was keen to check out Lunar Park after it made Beth’s top 5 for 2005 and was drawing praise from other friends as well.

I devoured it over two days, and Beth’s assessment of it being by turns “hilarious, clever, spooky, then sad” is spot on.

It’s actually the first Ellis I’ve read, and the (supposedly) autobiographical introduction is an enormously witty “imitation of himself”, a stylised and at least partially true account of his rise to prominence and the “American Psycho” controversy. I’ve never had the stomach to read “American Psycho”, but trust the reviews that the film captured much of the humour and ambiguity while omitting the baroque violence.

If “American Psycho” was fundamentally a parody of the emptiness of money-obsessed big city America, then “Lunar Park” is an excoriation of the emptiness of suburbia - and a pretty compelling post-modern horror novel. The “emptiness of suburbia”, you say, isn’t that a bit trite; a little twee and “Desperate Housewives“?

It’d be a fair criticism, if this weren’t a novel first and foremost about materialistic, status-obsessed parenting and how a generation of parents driven by personal freedom are as capable of screwing up their kids as their hidebound 1950s parents. The depiction of lethargic children on a cocktail of behavioural drugs at a “rehearsal party” supervised by a paediatrician is as funny as it is awful.

(The parent/teacher night gag about appropriate ways to draw a “normal” platypus is also a small gem.)

That and it’s a novel about being haunted by the memory of your father and a seriously nasty novel you once wrote, as well as … well, the forces of supernatural evil (maybe).

It is also wildly clever. The author-turning-himself-into-character shtick has seldom been done so well, deftly manipulating the conventions of both “I-never-knew-my-father” autobiographical fiction and the straightforward small-town horror genre. (His heavily ironic disclaimer about having done no research into the “true” events of the novel is also an overdue call for a return to imaginative, as opposed to footnote-driven, fiction.)

Despite the trappings of autobiography, one is left with the distinct impression you know little more about Ellis, other than the fact he’s a damn clever writer.
Holiday reads part 1:
Sebastian Faulks, “Human Traces”

Headline: wildly over-hyped historical novel of mad-doctors, schizophrenia and evolution

Right, I’ve not read “Birdsong” or “Charlotte Gray” - which many rave about - but while “Human Traces” would comfortably fill a long weekend at the beach, it’s a trifle frustrating.

The historical detail on the origins of psychiatry as a field of study, and early theories on “mad-doctoring” is engaging. The provocative thesis of one of the central characters, the improbably named Dr Thomas Midwinter, that our capacity for language is also the origin of madness but that at one stage of (pre-literate) human development the ability to “hear voices” was vital to human existence is certainly engaging.

Indeed, the historical detail and evocation of place is usually pretty good.

It’s just a shame the characters are all so flat and either unsympathetic or laughably idealised. The women, to an indistinguishable one, have a near psychic ability to intuit what the menfolk are thinking and feeling and are - frankly - concerned with little else. In a depiction of what is meant to be life in all its vicissitudes, it must be said that success comes rather easily. Unless married off by unfeeling parents, characters seem to fall in love by a second meeting at the latest, and are unproblematically engaged soon after.

There is the tragedy of the first world war, and the campaign on the western front and in the Italian mountains. Pity that much the same territory was covered so much better in Hemmingway’s “Farewell to Arms”.

Most of the splash about “Human Traces”, other than suggestions the subject-matter was inspired by Faulk's mother's experience of mental illness, was made by the Oxford don Professor Tim Crow who was a little concerned (rather endearingly) about whether “it matters if the facts are right in a novel” - basically an accusation that Faulks had lifted a theory of his and anachronistically given it to a character who, on the basis of knowledge then available, could never have conceived it. Faulks apparently found the idea distressing. I have trouble appreciating the problem.

Faulks rather sententiously disclaims the practice of concluding a novel with a list of references “as though all art aspired to the condition of a student essay.” I find, however, some of the rather thinly veiled and clunking exposition of scientific thought rather much in a novel; though lamentably this category contains many of the novel’s most interesting passages.

Indeed, the most interesting idea in the novel, that all humans once “heard voices” and had a direct psychic (or psychiatric) experience of the divine is attributed in the acknowledgements (really a bibliographic essay) to Julian Jaynes.

I have no trouble with fiction presenting interesting ideas, but find the contemporary insistence on historical accuracy stifling and entirely unnecessary. I rather liked Bet Easton Ellis’ apologetic disclaimer of having done know research into the “true” events of “Lunar Park” and am rather looking forward to a novel that does not occasionally feel like a textbook with all the footnotes missing.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


So, I am staying at my parents' house in the countryside outside of Canberra.

My mother is having a bookclub lunch today, and I will escape to the ANU law faculty library while Dad helps out.

However, we've had an unexpected visitor.

Mum woke up this morning to find a black-faced sheep, all cotton-wool fur and spindly black legs, standing on the terrace looking in the bedroom window.

Just the one lost sheep, parachuted in, as it were, from nowhere.

Very Wallace and Gromit.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Flashback to jet-lag in the making: in-flight movie reviews

The 40 year old virgin: not just American Pie for grown-ups; foul-mouthed, but rather sweet and with few gross-out jokes.

Who woulda thought condoms and chest-waxing could be so funny?

Cinderella Man: y'know the screenplay Barton Fink writes, about a wrestler who is emotionally and physically (but mostly physically) in tights? Who faces down an evil opponent? To rise heroically from his tenement origins? Yup, this is Barton's film.

... And man, does boxing ever make me feel ill. How is bludgeoning someone unconscious a sport in a civilised world?

Batman Begins: a novel take on a modern myth, dominated by the quest for psychological realism (and big toys!), betrayed by an ending one wishes disbelief could suspend.

Yes, I'll still go see the sequel.

Sky High: high-school - it's where geeks turn out to be cool, your girl-friend turns out to be your worst enemy, your worst enemy turns out to be your best friend, and your best friend turns out to be your girlfriend. Oh, and it's where you go to learn how to use your heriditary super-powers.

NB: Cheerleaders are evil.

Something's Gotta Give: old wrinkly people with heads full of character date young, featureless people with heads full of air - before realising they love each other. I think.

I dunno, I only watched the last 20 minutes.

Monday, December 12, 2005

On being a Phud

It's a bit like being 19 again, staying with your parents on an extended basis as a 30-year old. Having to borrow the car, explaining when you'll be away overnight and who you'll be with (just so no one worries), calling to confirm if you'll be home for dinner, and ... well, not having anything approaching an office space. Not bad, or difficult, just odd.

Anyway, a further 19-ish experience was a weekend in Sydney, getting lifts both ways with grown ups. A salient reminder that I am a grown-up myself was an evening in Leichardt with friends from uni: all law graduates. All but one had done time in corporate law firms.

One had jumped from the Tax Office to corporate law, one had started there and stayed there, one had gone from corporate law to a public broadcaster, and one was in State government. Then there were the two PhD students, me and an English PhD student now based in Melbourne (the amazing Beth).

So Beth and I managed the Phud conversation: "I can't believe that some weeks I can write a thousand words a day, and others I'm beating my skull in to finish a paragraph ... some books I tear through, others take a week to crawl through taking notes". Okay, not the exact words we used, but the gist.

The Phud conversation is valuable: while all work-talk is potentially boring to others, we're an isolated group who need the peer support to keep going. As people, we read to know that we are not alone. As humanities Phud students, neither blessed by nor shackled to a lab group or office, we have the work conversation to escape our little boxes and gain some perspective on what is "normal".

In at least one survey, half of those discontinuing graduate study rated isolation as an important factor for leaving their studies (especially, it seems women).

I guess this is one thing I get out of being in Cambridge in particular: if you want to be isolated in Cambridge, it's easy. Stick to your room and your lab or library and don't socialise. A good number do this. However, if you want a social network of other graduate students - it's there on your doorstep. My college in particular is known for being small and friendly.

Frankly, I think being surrounded by people who know psychologically and emotionally what being a Phud is like is amazingly helpful. It's not that other friends are insensitive, but the invisible support of peers - especially across subjects or disciplines - is a major part of maintaining the morale to keep going.

That, and fear. Fear is really useful too.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Wrenching this thing back on course

I've been away from regular blogging for a while, I realise. Partly that's been the fact of coming back to Australia for the holiday season and getting over my usual vicious jet-lag.

But, regardless of jet-lag, Couritng Disaster has been adrift for a bit. I've been very busy of late with the PhD and my first ever semester's teaching and have felt a bit - well, busy to be blogging.

Strange, though, that I could always find time for it when working at a much more time-constrained desk job and even - more or less - through the chaos of my masters year.

First, I think blogging was simply a novelty, and my writing was mostly humourous pieces, reviews and the odd legal issue. Then it was a document of what could well have been my one and only year in Cambridge.

Now, with my life beyond blogging gathering steam, it seems important to re-focus on what I expect to do with this blog.

I think I really want it to be, rather more self-consciously, the blog of a PhD student. This is in itself a weird experience, and one worth recording.

So expect stories of teaching undergrads (including the odd mildly humilatiing piece of on-the-job learning), failed efforts to do PhD reading on long haul flights, and the trials and tribulations of trying to get a few publications out there.

Dammit. I have a book review to finish over Christmas as well.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Full circle

Cycling home from my third Christmas dinner in college (I have been here a frighteningly long time now) a strange thought struck me.

When I first found out I would be coming to Cambridge for my Masters, a friend in the Federal Court loaned me her copy of Phillip Allott's "Eunomia" to read. It's a dense and difficult book, but quite inspiring in its depiction of what international law could be, not what it is. (His "Health of Nations", while still tricky, is a much easier read).

I still recall the sense of wonder it evoked, the dizzyingly alternative perspective on a subject I thought I knew, as I read in snatches on a late-winter tram in Melbourne traveling to and from the Court.

Despite never seeing myself as a legal theorist, I took Professor Allott's History and Theory of International Law course; an experience that more than anything else inspired me to stay on for the PhD.

And now, two years later, tomorrow night I am taking the colleague who leant me the book (who has also landed in Cambridge) to a discussion group and supper hosted by Professor Allott.

Funny how things sometimes come full circle.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Bad character deportation

The Robert Jovicic case seems to have touched a nerve, and exposed something I have considered scandalous for some time: the number of people who should be Australian citizens, but aren’t by mere oversight, and who are expelled every year from the only country they’ve ever known.

For those who don’t know, Jovicic is one of many dozens of individuals every year – people who have spent all their lives here and are Australians in all but the paperwork – who the government expels for being “of bad character”. They are then “returned” to the country of their birth, where they may not speak the language or even have access to employment rights or welfare.

In my time working at the Federal Court, this type of case always struck me as unusually heartless, driven by the utterly inflexible use of section 501 of the Migration Act.

Section 501 allows the Immigration Minister to cancel your visa if you fail a “character test.” You automatically fail the test if imprisoned for 12 months on one occasion, or a total of two years over more than one occasion.

Now, if someone arrives in Australia as an adult, on a working visa and commits a serious crime – they should be deported.

What angers me is the way, as in the Jovicic case, this provision is used to deport people who are only not naturalised citizens by their parents’ error.

Every year people migrate to Australia with infants and just forget to naturalise them. If they get into trouble later in life, this leaves them vulnerable to deportation to a country where they may have no contacts, no language skills and where – as in the Jovicic case – the national government may either not recognise your citizenship or have revoked it on the grounds you have been out of the country all your life.

These people are being subjected to an extraordinary double punishment, which is also utterly arbitrary. The victims of this system have served their time, but are punished again by deportation – a punishment that wouldn’t apply to them had they been naturalised. It is also a punishment that is utterly disproportionate to the nature of their crimes, these are usually small-time drug offenders who supported their habit through burglary or cheque-bouncing: not armed robbers and rapists.

These people are scarcely major-league threats to the community.

It seems a bit much to expel someone from the only country they’ve ever known because they’ve done two years for burglary – especially when you’re chucking them out of a country founded upon the transportation of a home-grown criminal class.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Moments not to forget your camera ...

So, I was cycling to the train station today. As anyone who has ever visited Cambridge would know, it's famous for its rising bollards.

Yes, yes, centuries of tradition, punting on the Cam, Harry Potter gowns, what really freaks people out are the rising bollards.

The edges of the down-town pedestrian area, and certain taxi-and-busses only points in the one-way system, are guarded by these stout metal poles about 3 feet high that rise out of the ground. There has been much debate about how they work, but a cabbie informed me vehicles that are allowed to pass are fitted with transponders.

anyway, the bollards at the edge of the pedestrian area rise at 10 am and lower at 4 pm, Monday through Saturday.

Today, as I passed the set near august St John's college, there was what looked like a roadwork crew milling about and a car parked in front of the bollards.

All I thought was: "Do they expect me to get off and walk, or can I just duck round the side here and carry on?"

As I did just that, I glanced back.

A gorgeous, new model silver VW Beetle was precariously astraddle two semi-risen bollards: one under each tire. The left one had come about two-thirds of the way up, the right only about a foot. The Vee-Dub's bumper sloped forlornly left-to-right.

Someone must've tried to slip past at 10. Or not know of their existence. Or had their clock set wrong.

And I didn't have my camera, dammit.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Japanese Whaling in ‘Australia’s’ Antarctic Waters

You might think that if illegal whaling was occurring in Australian waters, there might be a Court in Australia where you could challenge that activity. However, if those waters are off Antarctica, you’d be wrong.

In two judgments in the one case Justice Allsop has refused leave for the Humane Society to start proceedings in the Australian Federal Court regarding the whaling activities of a Japanese company in the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (“EEZ”) that Australia has declared off the coast of its Antarctic territory (see Humane Society International Inc v Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha Ltd [2005] FCA 664 and [2004] FCA 1510).

The most recent judgment was in May, so you’ll have to excuse my being a little behind the times.

So, in brief at international law a State can proclaim a 200 nm EEZ off its coast, and in that area pass laws relating to natural resources – including fisheries – and enforce them even against foreign ships. Australia claims part of the territory of Antarctica and has proclaimed an EEZ adjacent to its coastline. So any whaling there is subject to Australian law and you could bring a case under Australian environmental legislation, right?

Well, as it turns out, no.

The basic reason for this is the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which has about 46 parties or so, including Australia. The genius of the 1959 Treaty is that it ‘freezes’ all territorial claims in Antarctica, including those which overlap (those of Argentina, Chile and the UK) and provides that nothing done there will count as a claim of sovereignty and no State will make new or enlarged territorial claims. The trade-off is that all States are then free to send scientific missions wherever they please, and all people present in Antarctica are governed by the law of the State that sent them.

Now, here’s the tricky bit. Under Article 6, the 1959 treaty applies “to the area south of 60° South Latitude, including all ice shelves, but nothing in the present Treaty shall prejudice or in any way affect the rights, or the exercise of the rights, of any State under international law with regard to the high seas within that area.” The 1982 Convention on the law of the sea enshrined the idea of the 200 nm EEZ. Prior to which, it was usually assumed all States were free to sail, fish (or whale) upon the high seas without being subject to another State’s law.

So, does Article 6 mean Australia is allowed to assert a high seas right that came along later than 1959 (the 1982 EEZ), or that Japan’s vessels enjoy the freedom of the high seas?

(Alright, I’m setting aside questions here of the Whaling Convention and later environmental treaties on Antarctica.)

Only four countries in the world that acknowledged the Australian claim of territorial sovereignty in Antarctica (Norway, New Zealand, France and the United Kingdom), and it is not clear that this extends to the Australian Antarctic EEZ. Of 46 parties to the 1959 treaty, the inconclusive support of only four makes it quite likely that any State who had a flag vessel arrested in that area would challenge the lawfulness of Australia’s EEZ jurisdiction and might well win.

The Japanese view would obviously be that Australia has no right to apply its environmental legislation to this area.

Basically, the argument put by the Australian government was that this was a matter of international relations and enforcement of these laws would prove embarrassing and possibly damaging to the national interest (ie a definitive ruling against the EEZ by an international tribunal now could prevent it later being more widely accepted later).

The Court was very careful to say that these submissions from the government did not purport to direct the Court as to the outcome or interfere with its independence. However, its established as matter of case law that the Courts will seldom go against government submissions on international relations issues.

Also, rather importantly, the Court found that allowing the case to proceed would be “futile”. The case concerned leave to serve process on a Japanese company in Japan. It had no assets in Australia and there was no way to compel it to appear in Court in Australia. Thus, there is every chance the case would be ineffective, as well as diplomatically embarassing (and, in my view, very likely contrary to international law).

Leave was granted to appeal on the same day as judgment, though I doubt the outcome will be any different on review.

Friday, November 18, 2005

St Paul's Cathedral, London.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Everybody’s talkin’: the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

So, I’ve been to a couple of great talks this week. Yesterday, one on UN reconstruction efforts in Liberia, today an account of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The speakers were to be two friends, a former negotiator from each side, both old friends now, but in the end only the former Israeli military lawyer could make it. He was still remarkably balanced.

It seemed that at least one of the reasons he was kept at the negotiating coalface 12 years was that – perhaps surprisingly – all stakeholders tended to see him as relatively neutral and objective in negotiations, precisely because he was from the military and not a political appointee. He struck me both as a true believer in the peace process, and a hard-headed pragmatist.

Just some of the little details he mentioned about the early days were telling. Not knowing how to speak to address the other side at first (the answer being, in the end, as people), decisions about what to wear (should serving officers attend in uniform?) and the problems of negotiating with Palestinian delegations who had sometimes not met each other, or even their head of mission, before the meetings let alone having had time or the resources to prepare.

Some of his views were surprising. He supported negotiating with groups his government regarded as terrorists, and having them involved in political processes. The idea being that once extremists become politicians, at least some of them will begin to be caught up in political reality and start to make compromises like everyone else.

He also predicted no major work could be done on present negotiations until the middle of next year when both Israel and the Palestinian Authority come through their present electoral cycles. No-one, on either side, it seems is ever willing to negotiate with a potential lame duck – there’s no guarantee your concessions to them will buy anything from their successor.

He spoke of goodwill and good people on both sides, and the saying “It’s hard to hate in person.”

He also acknowledged, but shrugged off, the one-State thesis: the idea that the solution is not two separate states, but one integrated one (the South African model) – especially given the presence of settlements in the occupied territory.

His view seemed to be that with political will, such as the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, settlements didn’t matter much. Obviously they matter a great deal to those on the ground, but he regarded the issue of territorial boundaries as being – while still very complex – relatively simple compared to the intractable wrangle that will be the final agreement on the status of Jerusalem.

He acknowledged that sometimes complex legal deals are a good thing, as they allow the result to be spun for domestic consumption as a win by all parties, such as the Israel-Jordan water deal which is capable of being presented as all things to all parties. However, he seemed of the view that anything but a simple solution would fail in Jerusalem because of the complexity of the interests involved.

A very interesting evening, given my recent efforts to explain the status at international law of the Palestinian people to undergraduates.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A little older, as the weather’s turnin’ colder

So, today I turned 30. Hopefully an auspicious moment to return from blog hiatus. I’ve been treated to a couple of gloriously sunny, if incrementally colder, winter’s days. Quite reminiscent of winter in Canberra: strong sun, a still and cold day outside, high blue sky streaked with cloud. Until recently, there was even a bit of an Indian summer: great weather for photos, some of which I hope to get up soon.

In a significant move, today was the first day I wore gloves cycling. The wind froze my hands bad enough last night that when I got off my bike coming back from the pub (and, well, London) I hardly had any feeling left in my little fingers.

“But you’re 30!” I hear you exclaim, “Doesn’t that scare you at all?”

Actually, no. I’ve eased into it. My first birthday celebrations were over a week early on 5 November. It just so happened on that date I could persuade a friend who’s a college fellow (read, academic) to book a nice wood-panelled college room for a party. Together we sorted out a selection of four different wines and I instructed all guests to bring cheese. A lot of very civilised, if slightly tipsy, wine tasting and cheese eating followed.

Saturday, I was at a London friend’s 30th near Tower Bridge which kind of took the spotlight off me for a bit and gave me some company in the aging process. Actually, other than catching up with friends, a real highlight of the night was seeing the Tower Bridge lit up on a cold night. Quite magnificent.

And so I stumbled back into Cambridge on Sunday in time for a night at the pub with a friend whose birthday is tomorrow. Earlier this evening I even crept away to a wine tasting where I got to taste a half glass of a 1990 French Cabernet that now apparently sells for £120 a bottle. Rather worryingly, it tasted not that much different to most red wine as far as I’m concerned.

So yes, relaxed, comfy and a little older. Possibly a little wiser and feeling more settled in my life path (academia, ho!), but certainly no taller this birthday (see photo).

Friday, October 28, 2005

Only sleeping ... (and books as "the new snobbery")

May as well make it official: I am taking a little break from my increasingly erratic updates of Courting Disaster. There will probably not be much posted next week either, but I'm hoping for a rested return to form thereafter.

Meanwhile, perhaps I shouldn't feel quite so intimidated at the thought of how many people seem to be taking the Booker Short-List assault course: unlike Beth, many apparently buy prize-listed books just to look more intelligent on the tube, or when their bookshelves are being inspected by friends.

Monday, October 17, 2005

I lost my balloon!

So yesterday was a very Christopher Robin evening. Matters started ordinarily enough: after a Sunday morning's lazing about, I marked an undergraduate essay and went to a housewarming BBQ. So far, so pleasant and autumnal.

But then I had to help set up for a club squash. No, not a lemon drink.

A "squash" in Cambridge is generally a drinks function where the jaded old committee of a club or society meet the newly-minted enthusiastic first years and attempt to fill them with enthusiasm for the society and its good works, and with alcohol, in about equal measure.

Normally: many people, small room, hence squash.

Not so our almost venerable (but hip) little organization. We managed to put on a fairly civilized spread in a pleasant room, with jazz playing on someone's iPod speakers in the background (I wonder whose?) and weren't too crowded at all.

There were also blue balloons.

Now, a point to note is that I am one of only two grads on the committee and the only boy on the committee at all. The average committee member age is probably 21 and only because I and the other grad are both turning 30 this year.

So, while packing up, one of my fellow organizers asked: "Do you like being the only boy on this committee? What's it like?"

"It's like have a nine or ten younger sisters. Terrifying."

"We always feel reassured when you turn up to things. Like there'll be someone sensible around to look after us."

"You know, I'm sure that's said about Christopher Robin in the Pooh books: '... and everyone felt much better now that Christopher Robin was there.'"

To compound the image, I then got to take home a blue balloon tied to my backpack as I cycled through the night. But, as I can now warn you from bitter experience, knot that little sucker tightly if you expect it to be there when you get home.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The hep jazzcats of Cambridge

On Tuesday I was walking just round the corner from where this photo was taken, when I was stopped in my tracks by the sudden familiar tones of a muffled trumpet in seven short bursts from above: "whah-wha-whah-wa-wah-whah", like a happy duck quacking through molasses.

Then, crump, a heavy set of piano notes fell down behind it, then picked themselves up into swiftly developing riff that went loping off around the trumpet quack before the drums and bass kicked in.

Clark Terry and the Oscar Peterson Trio, one of my favourite jazz records was being played at death-metal volume over Trinity Street. (Listen to the opening over here.)

I really, really hope it was some undergrad new to the joys of Oscar showing off to a friend, or just lounging back and murmuring: "Like, yeah ..."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Trying new things

So, as I mentioned below, I repaired my bike yesterday. An operation that would have taken a competent bike mechanic 20 minutes I pulled off in a mere two hours with the aid of eHow.com, which claims to provide “Clear Instructions on How To Do (just about) Everything” (I want to search it for instructions on creating WMD but something tells me this could look bad later).

When Malcolm sold me the bike (hi Malcolm!) I’d recalled he’d left me some spare inner tubes, and presumed he’d also left me some tyre levers. Tyre levers, may I say, rock. It is surprisingly damn difficult to prise a bike tyre off its rim, or get it back on for that matter, without leverage.

Further, it was the rear wheel I had to change: meaning I did all this without destroying the gear assembly or getting the chain hopelessly tangled. (Both of these would take talent, but I’m not ruling out my powers of destruction).

Anyway, the new inner tube is in, despite my worst fears I got the tyre back on the wheel, and the wheel back on the bike. What’s even better: I don’t seem to have caught the inner tube between the tyre and rim anywhere – which would insure a tear in the tube and, hey presto, back to square one.

All up, I am feeling like a man who could be bike-mechanic sexy. (See the entry for March 23, 2004 over here somewhere. Just don’t blame me for my stupid archives … )

Oh, and today I taught undergrads for the first time as well. They didn’t complain, throw things, or set fire to me – even a little bit!

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Self-determination and all that jazz

While attempting to fix my bicycle today I bumped into a visiting college friend who’s working for the UN Mission in Kosovo.

Odd to be discussing the exercise of treaty-making powers by the UN over a territory which may or may not ultimately be able to control its own foreign affairs while smeared in bicycle grease.

It was also an odd time to bump into him as Kofi Annan has just received a report from a special envoy on Kosovo, examining the options for its “final status” when the effective rule of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) ends.

It’s outright reintegration into Serbia following the 1998-9 conflict would seem highly unlikely, but the deliberate creation under UN auspices of a tiny fully independent State or a lesser “autonomous region” raises interesting questions.

By the end of term I’ll be explaining the law of self-determination to second-year law students. Which means I need to come to an understanding of it myself. Dammit.

Anyway, the political principle of self-determination is both a powerful tool for those living in territories subject to foreign rule and also a genie that’s rather hard to put back in the bottle - in that it seems to imply any ethnic group can claim its own country.

As a legal concept, the boundaries of self-determination a bit hard to establish. Basically, it meant former colonies – particularly in Africa – could claim self-determination within existing colonial boundaries (latin tag for this idea: “uti possidetis”). That is, if you accept the arbitrary territorial divisions of colonialism for the sake of future peace (a bargain ultimately backed by the Organisation for African Unity) the inhabitants of the territory can chose how they want to be governed.

In practice this always meant become a sovereign State. In this sense, self-determination was a right exercisable by the people who arbitrarily found themselves lumped into an ascertainable territory: it was not a right belonging to ethnic groups.

International law does not per se recognise the rights of ethnic/national groups to “self-determination”, but it does protect the rights of individuals to associate in cultural, linguistic or religious groups.

The reason for this is obvious: international law is made by States who are not keen to allow themselves to be dissolved into infinitely fracturing self-governing sub-groups. Individual rights to associate in groups within existing State structures they can cope with.

The collapse of the former Yugoslavia challenged all this to some extent. Here was an arbitrarily assembled federal State collapsing into its internal administrative regions, which did have strong ethnic majorities. “It’s self-determination Jim, but not as we know it.” The people of Quebec, Scotland or Western Australia have no right to unilaterally succeed from their Federal governments, so how did Yugoslavia succeed in ripping itself into smaller legal pieces?

Frankly, at present, I think what occurred was quite simply an exceptional case. As a matter of effectiveness (an important idea in international law), the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had ceased to function. The initial problem wasn’t civil war, it was a fundamental change in the underlying ideology of the State. Without a strong communism at the helm, old tensions could re-emerge, allowing central government to disintegrate.

In terms of controlling the impending chaos, the EC turned by analogy to the principle of “uti possidetis”, because it drew some lines on the ground that seemed to promise (rather illusorily as things turned out) stability and an alternative to conflict.

It’s still not a full answer, but it’s a start …

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Fresher's flu

Michaelmas is once more upon us: denoted by wide-eyed new arrivals in Cambridge, the turning of the leaves, the first autumnal mists and - inevitably - my first cold of the year.

This year I managed to catch it before Fresher's week, while sojourning in the peaks district. In some ways, a good week to be sick as there's little prospect of getting any work done in any event.

In some ways, bad: as it's the week to get to know the newbies and make 'em feel welcome.

I'm opting for the inhospitable strategy of a DVD ("Kill Bill, vol. 1") and early to bed ...

Saturday, October 1, 2005

So, where the hell have I been? (If you even noticed I was away … )

I’ve been remiss, certainly: but the last two weeks has been a non-stop travel extravaganza. I’ve been in Switzerland, Oxford, London and the Peaks District in just under two weeks.

Executive summary (it's a long post)

Switzerland was cold, wet and less full of Swiss people than one might expect (admittedly, I was in Geneva, which is 50% foreigners).

I was in Oxford for a Friday afternoon, and found it pleasant enough that I may have to go back for a weekend, despite it being “The Other Place” and having backed the King in the Civil War.

Then a quick weekend in London with Peter and Jasmine, my tirelessly hospitable hosts in the metropolis, before heading off for three days of hostelling in the hilly bit of England.


Friday 16 September I set off for a weekend in Geneva, pretty much straight from presenting a paper at a conference in Cambridge. I was greeted at the airport by my host (an Australian buddy from the LLM who works in – wait for it – international law), and was swept off to drink wine in a funky little bar.

Not sure what I was expecting of Geneva. It felt like most of the place was erected out of concrete in the 1970s. Or maybe it was just that my host lived in the student quarter. Saturday we tootled round the Romanesque/Gothic confection of the Cathédral Saint Pierre, had lunch at a café and in the face of flaying wind went shopping. (Yes, I found bargains in Geneva). I then went to a fun party of ex-pat Anglophones in what would have seemed a big flat, had it not contained about 40 people.

Geneva is apparently dead on a Sunday, so we headed up to a wine festival in the little village of Roussin with some of my host’s Red Cross buddies. We drank wine, ate sausage and watched a gloriously amateurish parade of oompah-bands from villages in the district, followed by little floats principally stocked with sombre-faced Swiss kids in costume.

In a very me moment, I got lost on the way to the train station on Monday, and so wound up jumping in a cab (“l’aeroport, s’il vous plait!”) to prevent a repeat of my Edinburgh easyjet non-departure.

Oxford and London

Friday 23rd I had a chance to have a discussion with a senior law of the sea academic in Oxford.

Bizarrely, there is no train from Cambridge to Oxford (though there is, apparently, a line that was last used in the war). The options are to spend a freak-load of cash and make a two-hour train trip going into London transferring from Kings Cross to Paddington and heading out again; to spend even more and fly "Don Air"; or spending a fiver and getting an epic three-hour, stopping all villages, bus.

Poverty won over common sense, but at least it was a chance to catch up on some reading.

The interview went well, Oxford was pretty (when it stopped raining on me) and has some amazing vintage clothing stores, and I had an agreeable time drinking with friends of my sister’s.

Then off on a bus to London Friday night. Saturday was a whirlwind social round catching up with my Australian lawyer friends for lunch or drinks, before a late train home to Cambridge so I could catch a visiting former flatmate for breakfast on Sunday.

Peaks District

Then, earlier this week, I was away Monday through Wednesday at a youth hostel in Edale, in the peaks district, for outdoor activities with 100 new scholars from my funding body.

Predictably, I managed to take a seat on the bus leaving Cambridge directly in front of an Australian lawyer, who’d been to the same law school, worked at the same firm and was at the Sydney Federal Court while I was at the Fed in Melbourne.

Unlike the uber-adventure-activity mistress Marissa, I opted for the soft (if occasionally damp) elective activities such as raft-building, canoeing and hill-walking over high ropes and caving. My height of adventure was a 40 minute walk through darkened cow fields to the pub (not without its risks!) and badly bruising one finger near the tip when I got it caught in a three-strand chain bridge and then fell off arse-backwards into the woodchips during a “team-building” exercise.

Now I’m back in the ‘Bridge, panicking about my state of readiness for supervising undergraduates, and reflecting on the alarming fact that half the new Masters students in college appear to be 12.

Scariest recent moment ...

I held the gate at Wychfield open for a newly arriving couple. After some pleasantries, I introduced myself.

“I’m Doug,” I said, honestly enough.

“Do you have a blog called courting disaster?” asked he.

Ye gods.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Now this cannot be good news ...

25% alchohol beer, anyone? Unleashing such a product on Australians or Brits would seem to be a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately it tastes like a "quirky mixture of beer and sherry", according to its creator.

Even in Cambridge, possibly the world's last significant population centre for under-60 sherry drinkers (an 60 really should be the minimum legal age for sherry-drinking), that doesn't sound like a taste sensation likely to catch on ...

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Classic viewing: "Edge of Darkness" (BBC DVD)

Undoubtedly one of the best BBC TV dramas ever made, “Edge of Darkness” first screened in 1985 and reflects the dark mood and preoccupations of the time.

Starting with a simple tale of human tragedy, the plot slowly widens to encompass national and international concerns. Bob Peck delivers an extraordinarily controlled and nuanced performance as Yorkshire detective Ron Craven whose young daughter, Emma, is gunned down outside their home. Still grief-stricken, Craven discovers a handgun and a Geiger counter in Emma’s room. Was the gunman after him, or his daughter?

As Craven makes his own investigation of her death, several strands slowly come together: his own past in counter-terrorism in Northern Island, his daughter’s environmental activism and the current inquiry he is meant to be conducting into a rigged election at a Yorkshire mine refitted as a low-grade nuclear waste containment centre. These threads come to form one line of inquiry, taking him inexorably into the heart of a trans-national nuclear state.

What unfolds is, in effect, an extremely intelligent five-and-half hour action film mixing espionage, conspiracy theories, environmentalism and a touch of science-fiction. Quietly compelling, it is made with astonishing attention to detail. It uses both silence, and a terrific score by Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton, to great effect.

It has a gorgeous sense of surrealism as well: two frighteningly, clinically British spies (one all army charm, the other a glumly FT-reading lawyer) are funded by the Endowment for the Arts as “strolling players”; while larger-than-life Texan CIA man Darius Jedburg (Joe Don Baker) is obsessed with golf and British ballroom dancing.

But, as one review brilliantly puts it:
“The moment that most lingers in the mind is the sequence where Baker and Peck find a [disused] bomb shelter buried deep in [a] nuclear plant. Fine wine, the best books, and, of course, a classic motor car. The two settle down for a gourmet dinner.

“It's hypnotic enough for its oddity alone, but what is even more striking is that this relaxation occurs in the middle of a fraught chase sequence. Character development amid the action? Doesn't happen these days.”

Watching it again, I was amazed how much I recalled from seeing it as a kid in Australia. It holds up amazingly well, and its commentary on the links between industry, energy and the military and the way a society deals with terrorism and ecological concerns are also still more than relevant. Really excellent viewing, even if the parts of the final episode (“Fusion”) are a little melodramatic.

Further reading: Wikipedia, DVD Times, imdb, BBC Cult TV.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Notes from the Edinburgh Fringe: overlong and overdue, part 2

What I seemed to spend most of my four days in Edinburgh doing was buzzing between plays. I only caught six shows in the end, but that seemed more than enough. I know enough thespy Cambridge types that I could only see about half my friends’ shows – and I kept bumping into student theatre friends on the street … mostly while they were passing out promotional flyers to tourists.

So, highlights. Best Cambridge shows would have been a marvellous production of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” in the sweltering sauna that is the C Too venue; and an astonishingly physical production of “Macbeth”, cut to a bare one-hour script.

“Macbeth – The Hour” was competing in a fierce field of Scottish play productions: it’s something people seem compelled to stage at the Fringe. Still, this was different. It had a junk yard staging, with all walls, fences, tables, beds, etc being provided by a series of planks held with handles by cast members allowing lightning-fast scene changes.

To give one small sample of the physical staging: I’ve always found the witch’s cauldron scene pretty camp. Not here. Three half-naked men, kneeling, hands joined behind their backs represented the cauldron. As the witches recited their foul list of ingredients they mimed (very effectively) force-feeding the human cauldron’s three mouths, the actors gagging and choking all the while. Nasty, but surprisingly creative in a play where it’s easy to think you’ve seen it all before.

Of the new theatre I saw, “The Guardians” and “Angry Young Man” were easily the best. “The Guardians” is a dark comedy about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal; and the faked photos run in British tabloids of similar atrocities supposedly perpetrated by UK soldiers. Two talking heads, a female US soldier (clearly based on Private Lynndie England) and a sleazy, erudite, sadomasochistic, Oxford-educated tabloid journalist. The England character came off relatively sympathetically, and despite the nameless journalist being a bit of a stereotype, the American writer’s ear for English idiom was flawless. Worth seeing if it tours other places.

“Angry young man” was a straightforward farce about a dodgy doctor from an ex-Soviet republic fleeing to England to avoid being struck off. Following a misunderstanding with a minicab driver, he loses his identity documents and is mistaken for a people-smuggled refugee by a clueless upper-class would-be do-gooder. Following adventures with ducks, skinheads, predatory girlfriends and the English countryside a happy ending ensues. The clever bit was that the entire thing was acted by four men in identical suits, taking turns to play various roles (each has a go at the central character) and narrate the action.

Best line? Approaching the bar in an illegal club occupying a disused air-raid shelter, we have the following exchange:

Doctor: “It was, how you say? A typical English pub.”

Barman: “G’day, mate.”

The Fringe is simply an unconquerable cliff-face of theatre. But with a little research and some local advice I was pretty pleased with what I saw.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Notes from the Fringe: overlong and overdue, part 1

So a few weekends ago now, I was in Edinburgh during the Festival season.

I went to the ‘Burgh ostensibly to visit some delightful Cambridge friends in their new terrace house (home ownership among people younger than me really freaks me out), catch up with another Cambridge mate who’s doing some research up there and to have a discussion with an academic at Edinburgh Uni about my PhD research. I did, though, spend a good deal of time at the Festival.

Edinburgh’s a town of about half-a-million, which apparently more than doubles during the Festival season. It’s easy to believe: almost every down-town cash machine is perpetually out of service. At first I thought it was just bad luck or poor maintenance: then I realised they were all out of money. I had to ask for cash back when buying a sandwich in Marks and Spencers.

The Royal Mile becomes something like a crowd scene from a medieval movie. Hordes of people thronging below the castle while people in bizarre costume pass out flyers for their shows, and street performers increase congestion by simultaneously clearing an area and drawing a thick crowd. Madness best held at bay with an iPod.

When you can find some elbow-room and a beer, the people-watching is fabulous. Every third person is speaking a language other than English, or is carting props, costumes or fellow-performers to and from a show.

I had a number of Cambridge drama friends in shows, and have seldom been more glad to have politely refused to go to auditions. Most of ‘em didn’t look like they’d slept since arriving two weeks prior. “It’s so good to speak to someone who looks relaxed, alert and normal!” one all but yelled at me in a frenzy over coffee. (For the record, I was travel-stained and spaced out.)

It’s always potentially a bit embarrassing bumping into people who you didn’t know were in Edinburgh for a show.

“What are you doing in Edinburgh?” I asked one, meaning “what show”?

“Oh,” she replied in her light Edinburgh accent, smiling. “Waitressing. I’m just indigenous.”

Ground, swallow me now.

I also enjoyed an inadvertent return to childhood during my stay. I was informed on arrival that my host and her boyfriend in a fine bit of mutual consultation had double-booked the single bed in the spare room (which had belonged to my host as a child). I was welcome either to the futon in the lounge, or I could haul the component out from under the spare bed required to turn it into a bunk and share with the other guest “Ant”.

“Ant said he’s totally up for it,” I was told. So, never being one to act the killjoy I returned on my first night a little shy of 11 pm and started assembling a bunk. It swayed a little when I got in.

“Comfy?” asked my hosts.

“Fine,” I said, gently rocking our two-man berth, “I really like its slightly nautical air.”

Monday, September 5, 2005

Songs that are speaking to me at present

Having been tagged with this five-tracks meme by Daniel, I thought I’d comply (“Resistance is useless!”).

So, here’s five songs I’m enjoying at present:

Barenaked Ladies, “If I Had A Million Dollars”: “If I had a million dollars / I’d build a treefort in our yard … / You could help it wouldn’t be that hard … / Maybe we could put a refrigerator in there”.

A couple of guys and their string guitars mucking around with off-the-wall lyrics and a tune that just forces you just to grab a friend and dance in the kitchen (100% proven fact). It sounds like a parody C&W song, but is about a zillion times funnier.

Ani DiFranco, “The Arrivals Gate”: “Gonna go out to the arrivals gate at the airport / And sit there all day / Watch people reuniting / Public affection so exciting / It even makes airports OK”.

Other than the echo of the sappy Hugh Grant speech at the beginning of “Love Actually” this is a touching little tune, especially for someone who flies home at Christmas. The faintly on-edge feel of the sampling and techno-pop nicely match the dislocation of airports.

The Waifs, “The Waitress”: “I thought I’d move to Sydney to get a little piece / Of the city life they talk about in the 90’s / Where everyone I meet don’t want to know my name / They want to know what I do for a living.”

Apart from a damn catchy tune, this song summarises – despite the handful of good friends I made there – everything I disliked about Sydney.

The Cruel Sea (no website at present), “You’ll Do”: “The only reason that you can forgive me / Is cause you can't remember what I said / Your always sayin’ that you wanna leave me / But first you gotta get out bed”.

As Tex Perkins said introducing this song at a Canberra gig I once went to, “This is a song about the quest to find your one true mate, it’s called … You’ll Do.” The concept that this could be a love song embodies the laconic Australian humour and understated sincerity I sometimes miss over here.

The Cat Empire, “Hello”: “she stopped me in my tracks / and I said ‘mmm hchello hchello...’”.

So OK, the lyrics could have been written by girl-crazy fifteen year olds: but this song is just plain raucous fun, funk in a head-on collision with big band which manages to side-swipe a scratching DJ as well. A tune that’s always capable of getting me up to face the day.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Doug and Neighbour K, a-puntin' Posted by Picasa
Pirate punt-tacular

So, I took Thursday afternoon off to enjoy the weather and spend time with friends heading off for September. (Let's ignore for the moment the fact that I only ever blog about taking time off - the PhD is advancing.)

So, how did neighbour K want to celebrate her birthday, and how did the American Archeologist want to relax after turning her dissertation in?

A pirate punt trip, is how!

I was press-ganged to write the e-mail advertisement for the event:
Ar me hearties!

Ye is warmly invited, and firmly (ar!) commanded, to attend K's birthday-and-the American archaeologist's-handin'-in-day afternoon of pirate puntin', grog swillin', ale quaffing and parrot husbandry.

Eye patches optional. Ar.

"Avast!" I hear you cry, and: "But where and when can I set sail on this debauched and larcenous extravaganza of outlawry?"

"Thursday!" be the word.

2 pm in the MCR to don make-up and costumes, 3 pm at Trinity Punts to set sail with the jolly roger hoisted high and unleash terror upon the high seas - or as much of Old Father Cam as we can subjugate to our nefarious plans.

Be thar, or walk the plank!

... and for those who don't speak pirate: Thursday 2nd at 2 pm in the MCR for an afternoon of pirate punting. Do bring costumes, swords, beverages, edibles (chocolate gold coins a must).

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the outing was my ability to costume myself almost entirely out of my own wardrobe (the fetching paisley headscarf set me back £1.99 at Oxfam).

Passers by on the Cam seemed to get into it as well, answering our hail of "Ar me hearties" or crying back "Shiver me timbers!" or enquiring as to what grog we be drinkin'. Fun afternoon. And there are photos.

Oh, and check out international talk like a pirate day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Japan would be well advised to stop going reckless

A fantastic headline don’t you think? It introduced this little gem of North Korean journalism: “Its moves to escalate the tensions under the pretext of ‘threat’ from the DPRK would only invite stronger rebuff at the debate on the regional issues. The Japanese reactionaries would be gravely mistaken if they think their sanctions could frighten the DPRK or bring it to its knees.”

Finally these gems are properly available on line. This wondrous little item came to my attention via Reuters recently:
Few can denounce the "imperialist ogre" or "kingpin of evil" as well as the writers at North Korea's official news agency, and a California graphic artist is now cataloging their rhetorical masterpieces on a Web site.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, is the only regular source of the views of the secretive government of Kim Jong-il available to diplomats, journalists and scholars.

But there was no way for them to search the archives of KCNA until Geoff Davis, fighting boredom during a rainy San Francisco spring, decided to hone his Web design skills on a topic he had followed in news reports on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

"Their propaganda is often unintentionally hilarious and I couldn't find an existing searchable database of the KCNA on the Web. Thus, NK News was born," Davis told Reuters.

Davis has also created the endlessly entertaining KCNA insult generator, capable of churning out such gems as:
“You black-hearted gangster, you are sadly mistaken you think you can browbeat the DPRK!”

Marvellous, just marvellous.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Me and the Ruminator, packed fit to explode with lunchy goodness at the Free Press. Posted by Picasa
A fine visit

Marissa, the Ruminator, old friend and first-ever flatmate visited Cambridge for the weekend.

We punted, we looked at colleges, we bought lunch from the cheese shop and ate it on the college lawn, we looked at colleges, we had a beer from the Mill in plastic cups by the Mill pond. And that was just the first four hours after she got off the bus from the train station.

Our first day was mostly walking. Including walking up to my balcony to prove that the slim resistance offered by a bottle of Marsanne was, indeed, useless. Followed by a stroll to two of my favourite pubs (the Castle and the Pickerel).

Yesterday was mostly cycling in gloriously atypical sunshine, having discovered a spare bicycle left in the care of neighbours by a departing Masters student, which wasn't widly too big for Marissa - though posed its own unique mounting/dismounting challenges on occassion.

We cycled round Jesus Green, darted irresponsibly up pedestrian-only streets, got into Kings Chapel (having parked the bike), and cycled over to a compulsory stop in the Doug tour: a pub lunch at the Free Press.

I felt happy to dispatch Marissa on her travels confident she'd been well fed, watered, and exercised. What more can you do for a visiting friend?

Her report of things is over here. All I'll say is, just in case you got a false impression, the jacket in question was brown velvet, not brown pinstripe. Ahem.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A view from my balcony Posted by Picasa

A summer day to live in memory

In April I boasted about getting into a habit of going for a run most mornings, which I slid out of around May Week and the following rush of family visitors. Recently, with the aid of friendly neighbour K, I’ve been running again. Usually about 2 km.

Most mornings we aim to head out at 8.30, if we’re going, and check if the other wants to come. Rigorous experimentation has now proved we run further and faster with a buddy: not in any competitive spirit, just coz it’s more fun.

This has usually been followed with breakfast at the kitchen-across-the-way. I’m the only resident left in the kitchen in my four-room corner, while the “flat” opposite mine is more inhabited. The habit of breakfast with the neighbours resulted from my fondness for stovetop-made coffee and microwave porridge. My kitchen lacks a microwave, and for a while the stove stopped working. So what commenced as necessity has become a pleasant ritual.

Last Wednesday morning, though, was a little more solitary. I headed out for a run with only the solace of the iPod. A neighbour passed through at breakfast but lacked time to linger.

I got in a couple of decent hours work, and decided to go read articles on my balcony. Shortly before noon the Ruminator called to catch up and discuss details of her impending visit. Lovely. Another call or two back home seemed in order while I was at the phone.

Then, with two hours work under my belt, my resolve cracked. It was 27c outside. The sky was cloudless blue. It was one of those rare days in England worthy of the name “Summer”, one of those moments when the sunlight goes straight to your head, erases the trauma of a grey five-month Winter, and makes you think maybe Ol’ Blighty ain’t so bad after all.

Fortunately, an excuse to abandon work was at hand. Neighbour K and I had an appointment with the Jesus Green outdoor pool. Jesus Green is a devastatingly pretty park, especially when cycling to the pool you pass over the lock.

We swam briefly in bitingly cold water until the blood began to stir and it wasn’t so bad. After a brief bout of exercise, we flopped in the sun and chatted, dipped again and after a pleasant couple of hours headed home for a snack.

For “snack” read “gin and tonic on the balcony”. Another neighbour brought us corn and avocado salad for dinner.

Graduate student life, it’s a tough game.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Talking Danish Westerns with Lyn: "Dear Wendy"

Doug: Heya Lyn.

Lyn: Hi Doug. Um, don’t you feel uncomfortable appropriating my voice like this?

Doug: Not especially.

Lyn: Just checking.

Doug: I mean, especially since you’ve done it to me in the past …

Lyn: I said, ‘just checking’, OK?

Doug: and since you’re not updating Lynscreens at present …

Lyn: Yeah, a change of subject anytime now would be fine.

Doug: And especially since we’re going to be talking about movies.

Lyn: So, what’ve you been seeing?

Doug: Ooh, astounding conversational flanking manoeuvre there.

Lyn: But you’ll fall for it, won’t you? C’mon, recent viewing. I want opinions, dammit!

Doug: Right, well I’ve seen “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. I take it back, Depp does outdo Wilder; I like the new material, and the tone is much more suitably dark for Dahl. I went to see “Fantastic Four” – trash, but good, amiable clean-cut trash. And I, despite myself, loved “Wedding Crashers”: I did not expect to be laughing at cringe comedy for two solid hours.

Lyn: You never bother saying anything that concisely. So, what’re you saving the words for?

Doug: “Dear Wendy.” Man, that is an amazing, but really pretty damn disturbing film.

Lyn: I’ve heard it called a Danish Western. The script’s by Lars von Trier, right?

Doug: Yeah, but it’s not really a Western. And it’s not terribly Danish – other than the director, crew, funding and the locations. It’s an American small-town tragedy, and it’s about how the fear of violence gives rise to violence.

Lyn: Gimme a narrative hook here.

Doug: Jamie “Billy Elliot” Bell is a loner/loser in a small mining town until he stumbles across an old gun, which despite his pacifist convictions he can’t throw away. Forging bonds with other outcasts, he soon has a small club of “armed pacifists”, who carry their “partners” for “moral support”. They develop their own code of “Dandyism” (with nods to Oscar Wilde and Brideshead Revisited), grow as people and swear never to use their guns to kill. In fact, they don’t even use the word “killing”, they refer to it as “loving”.

Lyn: That, right there, does not sound especially healthy.

Doug: Hell, wait ‘til you hear how their private language interacts with the retro-cool Zombies soundtrack.

All the action takes place in a tiny town square, or one of two mines nearby. Yet without the Fight-Club-esque device of framing of much of the movie as an extended flashback, making it perfectly clear things are going to go badly wrong, the little fragment of a town would really not have any oppressive sense of claustrophobia.

People talk about their fear of gangs with guns, and about being beaten up at school. But we never see these things. Their square is a strangely innocent oasis. The characters also have some of the misfit innocence of Depp in “Edward Scissorhands”, which I saw last night on a big screen, too.

Lyn: Stick to the point here. So, it has an innocence. I think you’re circling the word “Romanticism”.

Doug: Yes, it definitely explores Romanticism, and its obsession with death and mortality and also the connection between fear and violence. A town that imagines gangs of armed youths summons one into being. Also, for all their preternatural skill with their weapons, it is painfully apparent that this is not a Western where the heroes will be able to take on vastly superior numbers of black-hats and win.

Dandyist armed pacifism has been seen as a satire of Western foreign policy, but I think it’s a far more disturbing exploration of the empty heroism of symbolic acts.

Lyn: You use the word “exploring” a lot. You don’t think von Trier’s moralising, then?

Doug: No. This is a tragedy, in the true sense of not being about unhappiness, but in the remorseless working out of events.

Lyn: So, is it realistic, then?

Doug: No, but it’s compelling. It is has a sense of heightened unreality, a deliberateness that gives the characters depth despite occasionally too-smooth dialogue. It’s a great film. Disturbing, yes. But well worth seeing.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Understanding suicide bombers

With similar incomprehension British society has been asking of the 7 July tube bombers “How could young men, born in England, personally unaffected by events in the Middle East, seemingly functional members of society, commit these acts?” Or more simply, “How could people who enjoyed cricket do this?” Obviously, in Britain and elsewhere, it has lead to a certain amount of soul-searching about whether multiculturalism has worked.

This misses the point.

The migrant experience has always involved initial ghetto-isation. The problem has never been the first generation’s coping with a new country, it has been the experience of their children.

The only place I’ve seen the point made was in a short literary essay (which shamefully, I failed to make a note of and have not been able to find on-line) on novels dealing with the alienation and anger of some children of migrants and their distinctively different experience to the generations before and after them. It was an idea I kicked around with a few friends recently, and this is a summary of my tentative conclusions.

Most migrants move for a better life. They don’t expect it to be easy and expect to work hard. Often migrants are prepared to take a step down the social ladder. Think of the archetypal foreign-trained professional who, with locally unrecognised qualifications, takes up unskilled work. Why? So their children have a shot at a better future.

Which can put a lot of pressure on the kids. One of my friends provided an example of a girl in her high-school with two African parents who had decided their first-born would be a doctor and their second-born a lawyer. Of course, the first had the gift for languages and the second for maths, but they were pressured to stick to the plan regardless. I can think of a uni friend from a migrant family (her father a successful developer), and she and all her siblings are now either doctors or lawyers.

This isn’t limited to migrant families, obviously. Many families who’ve recently “made it”, typically self-made entrepreneurs, will want to see their kids with “safe” qualifications in law, medicine, accountancy and so on.

However, second generation migrants are brought face-to-face with the hypocrisies in any society. Most western democracies are built on an egalitarian vision that “anyone can make it”. And while anyone can make it in Britain, Australia, Canada or the US – not everyone does, and there are fewer barriers for some than others. Children told by their parents they’ve come to a land of opportunity and pressured to succeed will have a more negative experience of the usual levels of incidental discrimination and suspicion of “new” migrant communities.

They may be able to make it, but will have to work harder for it than many, particularly in a post-industrial society with a shortage of blue-collar and entry-level positions.

On top of this, of course, is the potential dislocation of being caught between “home” and “national” culture. The second generation, as native speakers of the local language, are often the interpreters and intermediaries between the family and the outside world. A fine example of this, of course, is the popularity in some quarters of radical Imams who preach in English.

Caught between two cultures, the appeal of a pan-ethnic, supra-national religious identity must be strong. If already angry and alienated from your “local” culture, identifying with the suffering of Muslims elsewhere in the world can’t be particularly difficult.

None of this is to suggest that every second-generation member of a migrant community is a fiery, disaffected potential terrorist. Just that the pressures upon them are distinct and possibly unique.

A fact of the Australian experience is that by a third and certainly a fourth generation most migrant communities have lost any ability to speak fluently their “home” language. Indeed, many would regard it as pretty poor taste to suggest everyone who looks kinda Chinese, Greek or Italian should be able to speak Chinese, Greek or Italian.

Put simply, in the long run, local culture wins out.

Thinking of which, it’s not as if disaffected, violent masculinity organised on tribal lines is anything foreign to Britain. But football hooligans are no more representative of blue-collar former steel and coal towns, than the tube bombers are of their communities.

If you have a sufficiently large number of disaffected young men in a population, anger and violence is more or less inevitable. The “root causes” may lie in a lack of justice in the Middle East, but they may equally lie in social inequalities much closer to home.

If we’re going to tackle potential home-grown terrorists in multicultural societies, we need to stop thinking of them as somehow fundamentally alien and the special responsibility of “their” communities to weed out.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Judicial activism

When in need of a cheap shot for quick political points, blame judicial activism.

Frustrated with the lack of quick fix solutions in the war on terror? Blame it on judges for striking laws down.

Michael Howard, lame-duck Tory leader, has decided to trot out the tired old judicial activism line as he did while he was Home Secretary and in Government in an article for the Daily Telegraph. (Here’s a the complete article.)

His tone was a little more restrained in dealing with the issue on Radio 4 this morning, backing away from the quote “aggressive judicial activism” and emphasising that his point was that the UK Human Rights Act placed a burden on judges, meaning they had to engage in a balancing of individual rights and community interests best left to Parliament. His concern was to open debate on amendment or repeal of the Act.

Put simply, the HR Act gives the UK courts a kind of limited constitutional review function: if judges find a law infringes UK obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, they can refer it back to Parliament for amendment. In the meantime, the Courts still have to apply it, even if it can't be interpreted so as to be consistent with the Convention.

It’s hard to see how this transfers power to the judges, which is the usual criticism of any proposed bill of rights in Australia. All it gives judges the power to request that Parliament, “Have another go.”

If an Act clearly cannot be reconciled with international human rights, it cannot be struck down on that basis. If it can be interpreted consistently with Convention rights, that is the interpretation that must be given.

Regardless, the courts have never been the mere “interpreters” of parliamentary law, they are there as a check on parliamentary power and especially on ill-thought-out solutions.

Yes, conservatives can now, after the 7 July bombings, beat the courts and libertarians with their own rhetoric of “The real threat to the life of the nation … comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these”, but the law and its guardians should not back away from one of their first functions: to preserve fundamental values even in the face of emergency.

Further, judicial restraints on arbitrary detention are an important part of a successful campaign to counter terrorism. The terrorist recruitment base is always disaffected, radicalised youth. The experience of internment in Northern Ireland, imprisonment with no trial or with decisions on detention made by secretive security tribunals, was that where the wrong people were locked up they were radicalised by that very experience.

The complicity of the legal system in internment was an unmitigated disaster, creating further grievances that helped fuel a terrorist conflict. We should, as a society, be very wary of calls for the courts to give effect to the will of parliament and to exercise restraint in times of national emergency.

This is not to say the court system couldn’t cope with some reform to deal with new situations. Apparently, phone tap evidence is not admissible in British courts. While I can see, in principle, a conflict with the right to silence, that right is already one so heavily qualified as scarcely to be worth the name and I can imagine few citizens having a problem with saying, “Put all the evidence in the ring for a judge and jury and let suspects answer it if they chose.”

Undermining fundamental liberties, such as indefinite detention without due process, however, is another matter altogether, one as likely to fuel problems as quell them.

Friday, August 5, 2005

Criminal stupidity?

So, there’s been a fair bit in the news about 19 year old Sydney-sider Angela Sceats and her trial in England. Her offence? Running late for a plane and sending a joke SMS to a friend (Angela Forster) asking them to call the police and phone in a bomb threat to hold up the plane.

She was acquitted of any offence by a jury in 30 minutes. Once you read the texts, the reason is pretty obvious, though a full transcript of them is hard to come by.

Sceats text to Forster read: "Can you call the police. There is a bomb on board. The flight is 8.10. Leaving from Stansted. Going to Dublin. The number is 999. Do it now."

Forster texts back the message: “serious”, as in "[Are you] serious [?]".
Sceats replies: "Absolutely. Hurry up. Do it from the payphone outside. Put on an accent. Tell them there is a man with a gun to your head telling you to make the phone call."

Forster then calls 999 and apparently says: “I just got a message from my friend who is meant to be boarding the 8.10am flight from London to Dublin. She has just messaged me to say I have got to call the police. There is a bomb on board … I am not sure of the whole situation."

As a result of this call, Sceats is arrested at Stansted.

Several things strike me as more than a bit rough about this story.

The first is that anyone was so foolish as to take the texts seriously.

The second is that the judge held Sceats would have to pay her £15,000 legal costs because (in a dubious bit of reasoning) if convicted she would have gone to jail, and her actions still caused a security alert and created fear and a waste of public resources.

This seems to be using legal costs to impose a fine, on a person found innocent of any offence. Sceats has also had to remain in the UK pending her trial and missed what should have been her first year of uni.

The third is that Forster wasn’t charged with anything, or even summoned to give evidence. Okay, making out intent against her would have been pretty hard.

Still, it’s a high price to pay for a poor taste joke and a friend’s stupidity.

Thursday, August 4, 2005

Imminent injury averted

When returning to Cambridge from Windsor my Mum expressed some entirely human misgivings about my using the tube.

Doug: “Well, I’m more likely to be injured in a cycling accident in Cambridge than in a terrorist incident in London.”

Mum: “That’s really not very reassuring.”

Doug: “Fair point.” Internally: Mental note, really must get my bike’s brakes fixed.

One of life’s minor joys is finding reliable trades people. Over the long summer break, things move at a slower speed around college and I’ve had a chance to chat with some of the staff at my accommodation site. I’ve had some interesting conversations with my Polish cleaner and a lovely guy from maintenance who came to replace a flickering light.

More crucially, as a car driver I always faced the peril of trying to find reliable mechanics. Nowadays I need reliable bike mechanics – and having moved across Cambridge this year, needed some new ones.

And some new brakes. The hideous screech of my bike and it’s 30 metre stopping distance was beginning to draw attention. (Yes, Malcolm – I know when you sold it to me you said the brakes needed attention, dropped the price and recommended mechanics. I’m just lazy.)

So, two years in this country and I’ve finally found the yellow pages on line (www.yell.co.uk, not super intuitive, frankly). And through it – a local(ish) bike mechanic.

He was a little Italian dude with a face that appeared to have emerge from a gnarled olive tree of the type visible in the somnolent, dusty background of “Stealing Beauty”. I was in two minds as to whether, under the moustache he had only three teeth, or whether he just had three giant teeth dwarfing their neighbours.

He praised the “they-don’t-make-them-as-good-as-this-anymore” character of my brake assembly, pointed out where one horse-shoe component was a little out of alignment and said he’d probably just replace the brake blocks.

I got about 7 words in 10 of his English; but that’s a hell of a lot more than anyone’d get of my Italian, he was friendly, seemed to know what he was on about, ran a tidy workshop (I’m always reassured by mechanics with an ordered working environment) and didn’t overcharge me.

Yay, a local gem. And it always feels good to support owner-operators over a bigger outfit.

Monday, August 1, 2005

Diary of a spending spree

I recently earned a surprising sum of money doing some research work (of which, more later). What does one do with unexpected riches? Spend it, seems to be the answer.

Thus, Tuesday, the night I discovered my rate of pay for two days work was much higher than expected I stood seven or eight friends a round of cleansing ales at my local, The Castle.

I also ordered in a mixed case of white wine for summer drinking, and spent £20 or so on light reading on Amazon.

Poorer, but with funds in reserve, I thought I’d let off enough steam to just leave the rest in the bank.

No, no, no. I went to Windsor. Not an elopement with royalty, or just the rush of disposable income to the head left me standing in Market Square crying: “The Hounds! To Windsor - and Damn the Expense!” Just catching the parents as the exit the country.

Windsor is pretty. It is tidy, well presented and has a lot of whitewashed heritage buildings facing out onto tidy, unlettered streets. It has two charming railway stations, both rendered rather recently it seems in red brick. It is pleasant, affluent and agreeably dull. In short, it is what you expect Britain to be like, as opposed to the slightly dingy post-industrial malaise you find most places larger than a hamlet.

Also, other than having Windsor castle (of which, more later too), it has some fearsomely good shopping. And I was there for the sales.

My assimilation into Cambridge life is now almost completed by possession of the following staples:

a seriously nice summer linen suit;

a ¾ length, high-buttoning ‘autumn-weight’ tweed jacket; and

another pair of stripey trousers (charcoal and light grey).

I am doomed to assimilate. And am a hopelessly shallow consumer at heart.

But it was all half-price, dammit.

This after buying a second-hand morning suit for £36 on the Isle of Wight, as well. Clearly, travel gives me strange ideas about financial prudence.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Absolute power Posted by Picasa

Absolute Power

A small delight of living in Britain, with its woeful free-to-air TV (excluding some docos and Doctor Who) is the new series of “Absolute Power”. I missed its first run on TV, and the radio series but it’s refreshing to have a weekly dose of Stephen Fry, especially as the irredeemably smarmy PR guru Charles Prentiss of the firm Prentiss McCabe.

It’s not exactly laugh-a-minute comedy, more like a recognisable, yet surreal satire. The closest I can think of is “The Games”. It has a touch of the same deliciously dark topicality, such as Prentiss McCabe preparing a TV advertising campaign to sell the UK public on identity cards. After a man looking like an Islamic cleric delivers a cringe-worthy speech about making things easier for terrorists to camera, Fry claps him on the shoulder and calls out to the film crew: “Bring on the paedophile!”

While it doesn’t always hit the right nerve, it isn’t afraid of cutting close to the bone.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Seaweed: Isle of Wight Posted by Picasa

Sea crossings and unattended luggage

Yesterday: I’m sitting on a train from Sainsbury to Waterloo Station, ‘twill be interesting to see how I manage to navigate from Waterloo to Kings Cross with the tube closures. Anyway, I’m coming to the end of a week away with the visiting parents.

We were on the Isle of Wight most of that time, staying in the yachting port Cowes the week before the annual Cowes regatta (most amusing local brand: “Mad Cowes” clothing). We had a pleasant, low key holiday that featured rambling round pretty villages and National Trust and English Heritage establishments.

But getting there was another story entirely. Despite Mum’s apprehensions we made the motorway journey from Little Walden (north of Cambridge) down to the London orbital road and out to Portsmouth without a hiccup. We were in fact, the better part of two hours early for our booked Isle of Wight ferry.

Which seemed a good thing, the traffic to the ferry terminal was so backed up. We discovered eventually that our 4.30 ferry would be 60-90 minutes delayed by three breakdowns in the ferry fleet. We were requested first to come back at 4, then to come back again at 4.30. This involved fairly stressful and tedious escapades best not related featuring British multi-story car-parks of the kind despised in detail by Bill Bryson and parking on double-yellow lines. Eventually, we got into the holding pen car-park, were directed into another queue and issued a windscreen boarding sticker.

Now all that remained was a wait in the blazing sun in a shadeless car, right?

Oh, no. The holiday street theatre occasioned by unattended baggage was yet to kick off. We were politely requested to leave our cars and queue on the far side of the road, then asked to back up to the corner, while the yellow-jacketed car queue managers and a single bobby broke out some blue and white police tape.

There was an oddly well-behaved block party atmosphere to the whole thing. No grumbling, not a great deal of mixing among different groups, but a general good humoured wandering about aimlessly in a little street-area between the police tape and cones blocking traffic. Vans of police came and went, the odd idiot driver ignored the cones and came up to the tape before being turned back.

One of the dull, loud, stupid “hooray Henry” types from the next car appointed himself in charge of moving cones out of the way of arriving police vehicles, and then putting them back. A small crowd of middle aged men, in bad floral shirts, worn shorts, socks and sandals listened attentively to a policeman telling them exactly nothing.

It was all rather amusing. I wandered about in my iPod watching people.

Even after what the newspapers are rather tackily calling “7/7”, everyone was calm and knew that this was what it looked like, and eventually proved to be: an inadvertantly abandoned bag.

This phlegmatic acceptance of inconvenience in the name of the public good is probably the best part of the British character, even if present comparisons to “the spirit of the Blitz” are tawdrily overstated.

PS Well, I’m now on an express train back to Cambridge from Kings Cross. The mood on the tube seemed … sombre and quiet. Mid-afternoon Saturday is hardly a peak time, but still, I couldn’t help but feel there were fewer people on the trains than usual.

There was a higher police presence, pairs of officers roaming platforms at Kings Cross station (not the Underground) in their high visibility yellow jackets.

It was all a little salutary, and I’m not sure the UK outside London has fully come to terms with the implications yet.