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, 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.