30 September 2010

Ocean-going swan

This post on Cherie's Place | The Swan reminded me of the time we saw an ocean-going swan majestically sailing into Girvan harbour.

It was taken when we were on holiday in the UK five years ago, and visited Girvan, on the west coast of Scotland, where my maternal ancestors came from.

29 September 2010

Book Review: Prophecy, by Peter James

ProphecyProphecy by Peter James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I began reading this book, I didn't like it much. Perhaps my initial dislike was just prejudice. One of the characters is a child called Edward, and I don't think that is really a child's name. Yes, as a child I knew other kids called Edward, but not many, and it makes me think of people like the late US senator Ted Kennedy.

I've also read books by Peter James before. He writes whodunits, featuring Detective Inspector Roy Grace of the Brighton police. But this wasn't a whodunit, it was more like a supernatural horror story along the same lines as The turn of the screw by Henry James.

Well, I've come across such things before. Phil Rickman started off writing supernatural horror stories like Candlenight, but has gradually drifted into the whodunit genre, and his exorcist-in-chief, Merrily Watkins, has turned into an amateur detective in his more recent books. Peter James seems to keep his genres more separate than that, and his exorcist has nothing in common with Detective Inspector Roy Grace.

I liked the story more as it went along, and it had occasional resemblances to some of the "supernatural thrillers" of Charles Williams, particularly his War in heaven.

This is not the sort of book one can say too much about without spoilers that give away the plot. Francesca (Frannie) Monsanto is an archaeologist working at the British Museum, and a chance meeting leads to the possibility of romance with a widower, whose young son, Edward, seems to have unpredictable moods. But the chance meeting seems to be more than pure chance, and "coincidences" seem to keep happening, including unpleasant things happening to Frannie's friends, until she thinks that there is a common thread linking them all.

I began the book not liking it much. A couple of the scenes seemed unnecessarily gruesome, and there are some plot holes, but in the end I thought it was a good read, and better than Peter James's detective stories. Not quite Charles Williams, though.

Another interesting, though minor, point about this book is that it was not listed in Good Reads at all, and the ISBN had no matches on any of the linked sites, like Amazon UK, and so I had to enter it from scratch. Yet it has been around for quite a while, having been first published in 1992, and in the current edition in 1999, and reissued in 2006.

View all my reviews

25 September 2010

Christian kitsch

G.K. Chesterton once said that truth is always stranger than fiction because fiction is a product of the human mind, and therefore congenial to it.

I believed him, but my belief has been shaken by these products of the human mind Galleries - The 20 Greatest Jesus Products Of All Time

That must surely be the supersubstantial essence of kitsch.

Hat-tip to Bishop Alan, who says, "God bless America!"

23 September 2010

Our democracy at risk?

I pass on another message from Avaaz, with my own comments at the end.

South Africa's democracy is at risk -- a draconian and unconstitutional new secrecy Bill is in Parliament and a Media Tribunal could be endorsed by the ANC Council this week, muzzling the media and letting the security agencies operate without accountability.

The secrecy measures in the "Protection of Information Bill" and the proposed "Media Appeals Tribunal" threaten press freedom enshrined in the Constitution and will hamper public scrutiny of the government and security agencies, blocking the media from exposing corruption and abuse of power. Hundreds of prominent South Africans, business executives, civic leaders and journalists have condemned the measures and submitted amendments on the Bill to Parliament, but so far the ANC is defending both proposals. Only massive pressure from citizens across South Africa can wake them up and preserve hard-won freedoms!

We have just 3 days to be heard at the ANC Council. Let's raise an irresistible outcry -- join the call for the ANC to listen to the people, respect the Constitution and promote accountable and transparent government! Click to sign the urgent petition, then forward this message to everyone – it will be delivered at the ANC Council:


43% of South Africans survive on no more than R16 a day and half of our youth are unemployed, while Transparency International claims "corruption is increasing at an enormous rate and it impacts severely on the poor. Revenue destined for the poor is misappropriated". These new proposals would obstruct the media's bold efforts to expose bribery, corruption and fraud and would lead this proud democracy towards autocratic control.

The proposed Protection of Information Bill would allow any national or local government department or agency to classify and make secret any information that they consider against the 'national interest' and would punish whistle blowers or journalists with up to 25 years in jail if they leak or publish information that was classified, even if it was in the public interest. This violates Section 32 of the Constitution -- which protects the citizens right of access to any information held by the State.

The Media Tribunal would replace the Press Ombudsman with a state agency accountable only to the ruling party, tightly regulating reporting, and imposing penalties on journalists who publish unapproved content.

Just like when citizens came together to call for effective treatment for HIV and AIDS in 2007, if we rally now we could change the course of these repressive policies and efforts to silence the media can be stopped.

The ANC Council meeting is the decisive moment -- if we lose this chance, the ANC's 60% majority in Parliament will most likely push these proposals through unchanged. Inside the ANC Council COSATU delegates and others are strongly against the gag law -- if we raise a massive citizens' outcry this week, we could support their efforts on the inside to overwhelm an elite who attempt to railroad through these undemocratic proposals.

Sign the petition and forward this message to everyone:


Many fought, and died, for these freedoms. Now, if citizens stand up together to protect South Africa's democracy, our outcry will be too loud to ignore -- and we will beat those who want to protect their power and privilege by curbing constitutional liberties.

I'm in two minds about this.

On the one hand I don't want our hard-won freedoms taken away by a bunch of self-serving politicians.

On the other hand, I suspect that the equally self-serving media are crying "wolf" once too often.

So my response tends to be "A plague on both your houses" and to concentrate on something else, and think that if our constitutional liberties are being threatened by this as much as they say, then let the Constitutional Court deal with it and toss it out.

The media, no less than the politicians, are in it for the money.

So when they cry "wolf", I tend to get very cynical.

No, I wouldn't like to go back to the muzzled press of the apartheid era. But I do believe that the media abuse their freedom by hyping certain issues and ignoring others. And one of the things they have done is to turn politicians into celebrities, and to gossip about them as the gossip columnists gossip about film stars. They've certainly turned Julius Malema into a celeb, and he's played them along for all he's worth. Eat your heart out, Brenda!

And perhaps the ANC is reacting to that too.

Not that it's a good reaction, but when I read about it in the newspapers, my eyes tend to glaze over and think "Well, look who's talking."

Oh, I'll sign the Avaaz petition, all right. But I still think I'll leave it to the Constitutional Court, which can look at it, I hope, without all the media hype.

If the government try to muzzle the Constitutional Court -- then I'll get worked up about it. That would mean that they had sold out completely.

21 September 2010

Worsened words

I took down my copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage this morning to check on something and my eye lit on the article on Worsened words.

Changes in the meaning of words, and still more in their emotional content, often reflect changes of opinion about the value of what they stand for. Occasionally a pejorative word becomes commendatory -- Baroque and Prestige, for example -- but more often it is the other way round.

Fowler gives several examples of such worsened words -- imperialism and colonialism were in much more favour a century ago than they are today. But as Fowler points out, this is because the things they stand for are less in favour. The words have not changed their meaning.

Other words do seem to have changed their meaning since the Second World War, or at least seem to be thought of mainly in the light of bad examples, such as appeasement and collaborator. One that has suffered an almost complete change of meaning is propaganda.

A word that seems to be in danger of developing a purely bad meaning, especially in America, is epithet. Yet when we speak of "Jesus Christ", "Christ" is in fact an epithet. Perhap it is because this particular epithet is so often used as an expression of annoyance that all epithets have been given a bad name.

And soon after reading and reflecting on this, I received the following e-mail, which gave another example of a worsening word:
We at christiancollegesonline.org recently came across your blog and were excited to share with you an article “10 Signs You’re in a Cult was recently published on our blog at (http://www.christiancollegesonline.org/blog/2010/10-signs-youre-in-a-cult/ ), and we hoped that you would be interested in featuring or mentioning it in one of your posts. If you find something interesting or similar, please let me know.

Well, I've mentioned it in my blog, but I have grave reservations about the misuse of the word "cult" as if it always and only means something bad.

The primary meaning of "cult" is a specific system of religious worship, and I see nothing intrinsically wrong with worshipping God.

But perhaps I'm just rather old-fashioned that way.

When I bought Fowler's Modern English Usage I got the revised edition, brought up-to-date by Sir Ernest Gowers. But I look on the fly-leaf and see the date when I bought it -- 23 December 1970 -- nearly 40 years ago.

17 September 2010

Avaaz under attack by business bullies

Avaaz, which promotes various causes related to world peace, is now being threatened by business bullies. Some may remember the business bully J.Mark Brewer, and how he threatened bloggers who were exposing his dishonest business practices. The thing with Avaaz seems somewhat bigger, but if you want to help fight it, click on the link.

Avaaz has come under attack from a major media-mogul.

Huge numbers of Canadian Avaazers recently mobilized against government favours for a new radical-right propaganda network run by the Prime Minister's former spin doctor. The media empire behind the network and its billionaire owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau, has attacked our community with several smear pieces in their own newspapers, and one of their executives admitted insider knowledge of a criminal sabotage of our campaign. Now the mogul has threatened to sue Avaaz if we don't take down our campaign within 24 hours!

This is how big corporate power works to silence people's voices. But Avaaz is a community of almost 6 million people -- together we're far stronger than any corporate bully.

"Crony-media" and its incestuous combination of unscrupulous politicians and biased reporting is a rising threat to democracy in many countries, from Italy to the US to Australia. Let's take a stand, and show them their intimidation tactics will only backfire. They've given us a 24 hour ultimatum: Let's donate to give them our answer and keep the fight alive against crony-media across the world:


Democracy is on the march across the world, but anti-democratic interests have figured out a counter-attack: crony-media. When a political leader teams up with a massive media empire, they become hard to beat at the polls, no matter how bad they are.

15 September 2010

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

I woke up at 4:09 am.

As I usually do, I looked at my diary for 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years ago and saw it was 40 years ago today that Willy Lamprecht was fired from the Windhoek Advertiser. Willy had come from England to be the assistant editor, and his wife Madeleine, who was a strong feminist, began writing about women's liberation issues in the women's pages at a time when most women in Windhoek were anything but liberated. Willy had only been with the paper for a few months before he was fired, and they then went to Johannesburg where Willy worked as a sub-editor on the Rand Daily Mail. They had a daughter Shanti, named after Shanti Naidoo, who was detained by the Security Police at the time. I lost touch with them after that, and so this morning I Googled to see if Willy or Madeleine were on Facebook or something like that, but could not find them.

But that reminded me of another old friend, Don Lamprecht, who had e-mailed me out of the blue about five years ago. So I thought I'd Google for him and discovered that he had died last year, though there was a page in memory of him on Facebook. He was an actor, perhaps best known for his role as Tjokkie in P.J. Du Plessis's play Siener in die suburbs, though when I knew him, he was a B.Com student at Wits University. So I learnt something about his death, and that his friends in the theatre world thought very highly of him.

At the end of September 1959 I moved with my mother in to Quintondale Flats, in Cheltondale, Johannesburg. Two days after we had moved in, on 1 October, Don Lamprecht and another bloke knocked at the door and introduced themselves. Like me they were students at Wits, where Don was studying for a B.Com and I was studying for a B.A. The introduction was clearly on Don's initiative, because I never saw the other bloke much (I think his name was Stuart Bromfield) , but within a few days Don and I had become close friends. Don lived in a flat one floor up with his parents and younger sister Lindsay, who was about 8. Don told me she was adopted.

Don was the chairman of the youth group at St Luke's Anglican Church, which was just up the road in Orchards, but I continued to go to St Augustine's Church in Orange Grove, where most of my friends were. St Augustine's youth group belonged to a worldwide organisation called the Anglican Young People's Association (AYPA), and I persuaded Don to get the St Luke's youth group to join the AYPA as well.

A few days after meeting him I wrote in my diary on 9 October 1959:
I went up to see John Lamprecht. It was half-past-four and he was having lunch. His mother invited me to have some hot bread and I played with the budgie while John phoned to see if he had an exam the following day. A cub came for bob-a-job and he had to plait Lindsay Lamprecht's hair. His name was Vivian Cronjé, and a more self-confident little brat I never did see. John signed his card and under "type of work" he put "Doing kid sister's hair". Then he came down to my place and I played him "Li biamo, li biamo calici" from La Traviata, and parts of Mozart's 39th symphony. He showed me his Lambretta 150, which was very heavy. It had bouncy suspension and an electric starter. That evening he took me to a play rehearsal at St Luke's, He drove like a maniac in his DKW, and then afterwards we went to the Dolls House.[1]
Perhaps the play rehearsal at St Luke's was the start of his acting career.

Don and his mother were interested in spiritualism. Don told me that he was a member of two "bands" of dead boys who had committed suicide, or died by reason of some sexual offence. He lent me a book, The dead companions, that had been given to him by his "sugar-daddy" in Pretoria, a Major Alan Howgrave-Graham, and it was mostly about an 11-year-old boy who had shot himself because he couldn't do his homework. I once took Don's mother to a Spiritualist Church in Troyeville. The service was held in a darkened room, where the only illumination was a cross made from small red light bulbs. The minister, or medium, or whoever he was performed a "spiritual operation" on Mrs Lamprecht, and said he had removed something from her, but a few months later she died of cancer.

Don had a girlfriend, Sylvia Gaulden, and when they were going steady I didn't see so much of him, but then on 25 March 1961 Don rather nervously told me that he thought he was gay, and was going to try the gay life as an experiment. I suggested that he hook up with a gay friend of mine and chat about it with him, but he went off to discuss it with his "sugar-daddy". He later told me that he had been rather shocked by my response. I was the first of his friends he had told about it, and he had screwed up his courage to make this dramatic announcement, and I had treated it quite casually and matter-of-factly, and suggested that he discuss it with another gay friend. I was most concerned about Sylvia, who seemed very fond of Don, but he seemed quite casual about breaking up with her.

After that Don began moving in the circles of the Johannesburg gay sub-culture, and introduced me to several of his gay friends. That was actually the first time I had heard the word "gay" used to mean "homosexual", and it was then very much confined to the subculture, which had a rather romantic air about it, as homosexual acts were illegal in those days. But some of the subculture also seemed rather rough. The head honcho was a guy called Mike, who was referred to as "Mother", and looked as tough as nails, and looked as if he would beat up anyone who crossed him. Don told me that he did, too.

Don may have originally intended to try the gay life as an experiment, but he stuck with it the rest of his life. Six months later he told me that he had met his true love, whom he described as tubby, nine years older than himself, a Doctor of Philosophy and a teacher at the German school, and the last sort of person her would have imagined himself falling in love with. His name was Aart de Villiers, and shortly afterwards Don moved away to shack up with him. When Don contacted me out of the blue five years ago he told me that Aart had died a few months before, and so their relationship had indeed been "until death us do part".[2]

I went to visit Don a few times after he moved away, but usually found that no one was home, and so lost touch. Ten years later I was living in Durban and the play Siener in die suburbs came to town, and I saw that it had Don Lamprecht in it, and Val and I went to see it, partly because I was curious to see if the Don Lamprecht in it was my old friend and neighbour from Cheltondale. It was, and the part of Tjokkie, the "Seer of the Suburbs", suited him, I suppose, with his two bands of dead boys and his mother's spiritual operations. He played it well, though we didn't get to talk to him afterwards. What amazed me too, was the stage set. Sowaar, they had transported a house from Regents Park, Johannesburg, complete with tricycle on the roof, and plonked it on the stage of the Alhambra in Durban.

That was the last time I saw Don, and he didn't see me.

Oh, and I was fired from the Windhoek Advertiser a year after Willy Lamprecht was.

1. Don Lamprecht's real name was John David Blatt Lamprecht, and it was only later that I began to call him Don. The real name of the "Dolls House" was "The Doll House", and it was a roadhouse up the road in Louis Botha Avenue, where we would go for double-thick chocolate milkshakes. There was once a chain of them in several places -- Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria and Germiston at least. Only the Louis Botha Avenue one is still there. Don referred to the Lambretta scooter as his "roarpony", the literal translation of the Afrikaans "bromponie".

2. Perhaps Don and Aart's relationship raises the issue of homosexual marriage. As I have said elsewhere, I don't believe such a thing is ontologically possible, but I don't think it is my business to pass judgement on Don and Aart. And I do think that Don was probably better off with his tubby Ph.D. than with the hairy (and scary) bruiser "Mother" Mike.

13 September 2010

12 September 2010

slacktivist: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mosk

slacktivist: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mosk:
...all those stories about Glenn Beck. Beck has been reaching out to evangelicals to support his call for a moralistic brand of nationalism, and many evangelicals view him as a natural ally who shares their 'conservative' values.

But Beck is also viewed as 'controversial' because he is a Mormon. This controversy, and only this, was the subject of dozens of articles, columns and blog posts clogging my news feed. They all asked one and only one question: Should evangelicals avoid supporting Glenn Beck because he is a Mormon?

The answer is No. They should not be shunning Beck because he is a Mormon. They should be shunning Glenn Beck because he hates his brother, because he preaches hate, nurtures it, multiplies it and feeds on it.

He's also a liar and a con-artist running a shameless pump-and-dump scam on overpriced gold coins. Both of those far outrank whatever discomfort some evangelicals might have due to Beck's alleged Mormonism, but they fade in importance relative to the imperative to love.

How is it possible that so many evangelical Christian writers and reporters have taken the time to express their qualms about Beck's Mormonism but have scarcely any reservations about his relentless message of hate? 'Straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel' was Jesus' term for this sort of thing.

I disagree, well, sort of.

The point about Glenn Beck being a Mormon is important because it shows up the true values of those "evangelical" pastors who support him.

It shows that they have broken the first commandment "You shall have no other gods before me" and that "conservative values" (or whatever they see themselves as having in common with Glenn Beck) are more important to them than Christ.

It shows that whatever the religion of the "religious right" is, it is not Christianity; it is an idol.

I don't know enough about Glenn Beck to judge whether he is good or bad. Nor do I know enough about the evangelical pastors to support him to know whether they are good or bad. But what I do know is that their theology differs.

I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing for people with differing theology to get together to achieve a common political objective. I was once a member of the Liberal Party of South Africa, which had as members Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists, agnostics. They would all give different theological (or atheological, in the case of the atheists) reasons for working for the same set of political objectives. For more on this, see Religion, spirituality and politics | Khanya.

So where does it cross the line and become idolatry?

That's where I think Slacktivist is right -- where it is preaching hatred rather than love. Where political objectives are compatible with Christian objectives, it is fine to support them, but where political objectives supplant Christian objectives, it becomes idolatry.

This comes to the fore when you consider what you are against rather than what you are for. You can oppose a certain political policy because you believe it is impractical for various reasons. You might not object to it in principle, and think that its objective is OK, but object to it on the grounds that it is unlikely to achieve the stated objective. That is not a problem. It is not idolatry.

But if you are a Christian and you oppose a policy in principle, then if your reason for opposing it is incompatible with Christian theology, it becomes idolatry. And the grounds for Glenn Beck's attacks on Dorothy Day are something I believe no Christian can support.

10 September 2010

The Burning Times

Burning things (and people) you don't like seems to be a popular way of getting rid of them. It's also a great way of getting publicity for a cause. And as people in show business know, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

One of the examples that always springs to my mind is the group of anti-war protesters in California who publicly burnt a dog.

It was during the Vietnam War, and they burnt the dog in protest against the war. The public outrage was enormous, and newspapers editorialised about how they were harming their cause, and their action was counter-productive because it made people who might be sympathetic to their cause more likely to be hostile towards it.

But in fact the negative reaction, the outrage itself, was the whole point. They demonstrated that American society was far more concerned and far more outraged about a dog being burnt in California than it was about hundreds of human children being burnt in Vietnam by American napalm bombs.

And the latest in a long line of such protests is that of Terry Jones, minister of a small church in the backwoods of Florida, USA, who threatened to burn copies of the Qur'an. It caused tweets of outrage to flow through Twitter, and huge protests throughout the world. It certainly put his church on the map.

Terry Jones won't be the last Qur'an burning publicity hound | Richard Adams | World news | guardian.co.uk:
Jones's threats will be subject to the law of diminishing returns. Next time he threatens to do burn a Qur'an – and I fear there will be a next time – he'll be handled with much more caution by the US media, which has made itself look ridiculous in being outfoxed by the crackpot pastor of a miniscule [sic] church in the swamps of Florida.

US President Barack Obama, in a memorable soundbite, said that it would be a recruiting bonanza for Al-Qaeda.

President Obama was probably right, but he has done little to stop the even more powerful recruiting bonanzas for Al-Qaeda caused by burning children in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Those outraged by the burning of the Qu'ran may demonstrate in the streets, wave a few placards, burn an American flag or two, and go home feeling self-righteous, just like the Revd Terry Jones.

It is the ones whose cousins and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts who were killed when the US forces bombed wedding celebrations, or went on their killing sprees in places like Fallujah who are more likely to join Al-Qaeda.

In the 1960s there was also the phenomenon of the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in protest against the Vietnam War. Instead of burning other people or things, they burnt themselves.

This had a spin-off in South Africa, when staff and students at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg were protesting against some government atrocity -- I think it was the banning of student leader Ian Robertson.

I was overseas at the time, but a friend wrote to me in a letter about the protest, which took the form of a torchlight procession into the centre of the town. As they were crossing the bridge over the Umsinduzi River the procession was attacked by National Party-supporters. One of the protesters was an English lecturer and atheist, Cake Manson (who was thought by the English Department to be the greatest playwright since Shakespeare). He retaliated by sticking his lighted torch in the faces of the attackers, shouting the war-cry, "Burn you Buddhist bastard, burn!"

And that takes us back to California.

Burn, Baby! Burn!:
When rioters in Watts, California, began shouting 'Burn, Baby! BURN!' in the turmoil of 1965, they were echoing the most popular cry on rhythm-and-blues radio: The trademark of Magnificent Montague, the most exciting R&B disc jockey ever to stroll through Soulsville.

In Los Angeles on KGFJ, and earlier in New York on WWRL, Montague yelled 'Burn!' whenever he was playing a record that moved him. His listeners followed suit, calling Montague and shouting 'Burn!' on the air. The emotion in that exchange reverberated with as much excitement as the music of Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.

There's something about the Burning Times...

09 September 2010

Reviving an old family history blog

I recently decided to revive a family history blog that I had abandoned a couple of years ago. Google were busy revamping their Blogger software, and were taking a long time about it. Every week some or other feature didn't work because they had decided to replace it, but the old one stopped working before the replacement was ready, and after a few months of this flocks of bloggers migrated from Blogger to Wordpress.

I joined the flock, moved my family history blog to WordPress, and put the old Blogger one on ice, with a note saying where it had been moved to.

But eventually the improvements were made, the missing features returned, well sort of, and Blogger grew more stable. So I decided to revive my family history blog on Blogger. But there wouldn't be much point in having two blogs to do the same things, so I'm giving them a different emphasis. The WordPress one will concentrate on our own family history, and family news. That's because WordPress handles things like photos better.

The Blogger one I will use for more general things -- discussion of research techniques, general history, links to resources, discussion of the use of computers for genealogy, discussion of software and the like. Historiography, method, technique and theory will go in there.

That's because of the things that Blogger is good at -- grabbing things off the web, making links, displaying widgets and the like.

One of the things you can see is the widgets that display recent visitors from MyBlogLog and BlogCatalog. Blogger displays them OK, but half the time WordPress displays the wrong pictures.

Some people might wonder what the point of such a thing is, and that was the subject of my very first post :Hayes & Greene family history: Why a family history journal?.

So if you're interested in family and local history, and related topics, have a look.

Synchroblog on immigration

Yesterday some bloggers had a synchroblog on immigration.

A synchroblog is when a group of bloggers decide to post articles on the same topic at about the same time, with links to each other's posts, so that you can surf through the posts and get a variety of views on the topic. Thanks to Sonja Andrews for coordinating this month's synchroblog, and for reviving it.

This synchroblog was specifically on Christians and the immigration issue. Why just Christians? Aren't others concerned about it?

Well part of the answer is to be found in a blog post that isn't part of the synchroblog, but perhaps ought to be:The New Litmus Test | Solomon Hezekiah:
All of my friends (and yes, I have a few) who used to go on and on about abortion now go on and on about immigration. The level of perjorative that used to be reserved for those favouring abortion rights or, at worst, abortion providers, are now reserved for those favouring leniency toward undocumented immigrants. In fact, if anything, it is worse. In reading around the conservative blogosphere and even in talking to individuals face-to-face (because people tend to be much less restrained in the pseudonyminous detachment of the internet), opposing views are treated with anger, aggression, and a remarkable lack of civility.

That was written by an American living in the UK, which shows that the problem is international. In South Africa immigration has been linked to xenophobia, and some South African newspapers, notably The Sun, have published articles calculated sto stir up hostility to "illegal aliens". I've been told that in Australia "asylum seekers" is a dirty word.

But the dirtiest thing of all is that in America it appears that the "new litmus test" is being applied by people who like to call themselves Christians.

08 September 2010

The financial journalist and the monk

Some years ago the author Arthur Koestler wrote a book called The Yogi and the Commissar, about two very different worldviews. This article could be called "The financial journalist and the monk".

What makes a rather worldly financial journalist visit a monastery, not as a break form the rat race, but to find out the story of what's going on in the world where he earns his bread an butter. And it seems that Vatopedi Monastery has had quite a big influence in worldly affairs.

Read the story to find out.

Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds | Business | Vanity Fair:
After an hour on a plane, two in a taxi, three on a decrepit ferry, and then four more on buses driven madly along the tops of sheer cliffs by Greeks on cell phones, I rolled up to the front door of the vast and remote monastery. The spit of land poking into the Aegean Sea felt like the end of the earth, and just as silent. It was late afternoon, and the monks were either praying or napping, but one remained on duty at the guard booth, to greet visitors. He guided me along with seven Greek pilgrims to an ancient dormitory, beautifully restored, where two more solicitous monks offered ouzo, pastries, and keys to cells. I sensed something missing, and then realized: no one had asked for a credit card. The monastery was not merely efficient but free. One of the monks then said the next event would be the church service: Vespers. The next event, it will emerge, will almost always be a church service.

Read the rest of the story here. It's long, but quite illuminating.

06 September 2010

Synchroblogging Is Back

A synchroblog is when a group of bloggers wrote about the same general topic on the same day, and post links to each other's posts, so that people can easily surf from post to post and see the same general topic from different points of view.

The theme of September's synchroblog is Christians and the immigration issue and you can read more about it on Synchroblogging Is Back | Grace Rules Weblog:
CHRISTIANS AND THE IMMIGRATION ISSUE – 9/8/2010 (second Wednesday of the month) As Congress debates how to handle illegal immigrants already within U.S. borders and how to more effectively handle hopeful immigrants in the future, Christians will need to consider what it means to love these new neighbors in our midst.

Please email your name, name of blog, title of post and link to: Sonja Andrews at synchroblog@gmail.com by close of business CST on 9/7/2010 if you would like to be included in this synchroblog.

Please ignore the US-centric blurb, and feel free to write about it even if you don't live in the USA and don't want to emigrate there.

Oh yes, and there is still time to participate, as the synchroblog is to be on 8 September, and you need to send in the details of your post by Tuesday 7 September (and not 9 July!)

05 September 2010

Film remakes

My wife says there's a movie on TV that's just starting -- The taking of Pelham 123. I ask her if it's the real one or the remake, and she says it's the remake, so I say I'll give it a miss.

I'm not sure why I have such a strong aversion to films that are remakes. Perhaps it's the lack of imagination that gets filmmakers to do remakes of films that were either quite good, and didn't need remaking, like The flight of the Phoenix, or else were rather mediocre, and the remake was no improvement, like The Poiseidon adventure.

The taking of Pelham 123 was one of the former. If they showed the original on TV, I'd like to watch it. It they showed the original on one evening and the remake on the following, I might watch both for purposes of comparison, but if they show the remake on its own, I'm not interested.

I can understand a remake if there have been technical advances that make a difference -- such as a remake with sound of a previously silent movie, or a colour version of a previously black and white one (one of that category that I did watch was Titanic, though it wasn't, in my view, an improvement on A night to remember). But remaking The taking of Pelham 123 seemed entirely unnecessary on all counts.

But perhaps I'm just funny that way, and getting old and curmudgeonly. I didn't watch the original Ocean's 11 because it had Frank Sinatra in it. And I didn't see the remake because it didn't.

03 September 2010

H. Rider Haggard (book review)

H. Rider Haggard: A voice from the infiniteH. Rider Haggard: A voice from the infinite by Peter Berresford Ellis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read Henry Rider Haggard's novels as a child at school, and mine was probably the last generation to do so. He wrote fantasy/adventure novels, which he called, probably more accurately, "romances". His was probably the last generation in which such books could be written about our world, and the next generation of fantasy writers moved them off-planet in science fiction.

H. Rider Haggard (1856-1825) was born in Norfolk in England, and came to Natal in 1875 at the age of 19 as an aide to Sir Henry Bulwer, the Lieutenant Governor. The Conservative government in Britain believed in big government, and had plans to create a confederate south Africa along the lines of the Canadian confederation in 1867. Bulwer was preceded by Sir Garnet Wolseley, who prepared the ground, softening up the British colonists in Natal by "drowning their liberties in sherry and champagne" to ensure that control was kept firmly in the hands of London. To Bulwer it fell to take over the independent Boer republic in the Transvaal, and the independent kingdom of Zululand under Cetshwayo. The former proved easier than the latter, and Rider Haggard accompanied the military expedition, and in May 1877 raised the Union Jack over Pretoria in honour of Queen Victoria's birthday, though the annexation had been proclaimed a month previously.

In January 1879 combined British and Natal forces invaded Zululand, but met with more resistance, being repulsed at Isandlwana and besieged at Eshowe. Many of those who were killed in the campaign were known personally to Rider Haggard. Perhaps encouraged by the Zulu resistance, insurgents in the Transvaal began to demand that the British leave.

By this time Rider Haggard had gone back to Britain, got married, and returned to Natal to try his hand at ostrich farming. His farm was near Newcastle and the Transvaal border, and when Britsh reinforcements passed through on their way to the Transvaal the Haggard family could hear the guns from their home. The Transvaal Boers had their Isandlwana at Majuba mountain, and the new Liberal government in Britain had no taste for ruling the world, and some of the peace negotiations took place in the Haggards' house.

A few months later the Haggard family returned to Britain, with Rider Haggard feeling that there was no future in south Africa, and that the retrocession of the Transvaal was a big mistake. He decided to study law, but took to writing novels instead.

His early novels were based on his experiences in South Africa, and they ended up being the most popular ones, far more popular than his later ones. The best-selling ones were King Solomon's mines and She.

I read both of those as a child and others that I read were Nada the Lily and Allan Quatermain. The last I re-read quite recently. The main thing I liked about it was its description of a journey down an underground river into an unknown country -- a device that has been used by other novelists since, such as Enid Blyton in The secret of Kilimooin.

Like many of his generation, Rider Haggard was a convinced British imperialist, as was his close friend and fellow author Rudyard Kipling. He did not lose his imperialist ideals even when he encountered the dark side of imperialism, as Ellis describes on page 198, when Haggard returned to South Africa in 1914 as part of an official commission.
Rider was invited to a dinner party at which he met Sir Abe Bailey and other wealthy financiers, many of whom had recently made their fortunes in diamonds and gold in the former Boer territories. Here, for a moment, Rider came face to face with the grim reality of imperialism. Empire was made and ruled by financiers and was not created by the 'civilizing mission' of one nation. When Rider expressed is ideals he was soon told 'You are old fashioned.' In speaking particularly about the Jameson Raid, Sir Abe disagreed with Rider's estimate that it was a failure. 'On the contrary it was a great success as it led to the war and all that has followed from the war.' When Rider pointed out the cost to England in lives, Bailey, with a frankness unusual for a financier, merely replied: 'What matters; lives are cheap.' Rider was shocked. This was not his empire, an empire beneficial, spreading peace throughout the various warring nations of the world. But had his empire ever existed, or was empire merely the sordid business empire envisaged by the financiers?
And I think back to 2003, in the lead-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq, and how much it seemed to parallel British imperialism in the Anglo-Boer Wars, and how the outcome of the Iraq invasion was predictable, and predicted, and came to pass as predicted, and it was indeed clear that the one lesson we learn from history is that we don't learn any lessons from history.

Rider Haggard (1856-1925) was almost an exact contemporary of my great-grandfather, Richard Wyatt Vause (1854-1926), who, like Rider Haggard, was known by his middle name. His father, Richard Vause, was mayor of Durban when Sir Garnet Wolseley was drowning their liberties in sherry and champagne, and Sir Garnet, in his diary, described Richard Vause as "an active, shrewd man" and "an offensive snob" and noted that he, like so many others he had met in Natal, was weak in his h's.

The son, Wyatt Vause, fought in the battle of Isandlwana while Rider Haggard was holding the fort in Pretoria as a member of the Pretoria Horse, and perhaps they had met and knew each other. Haggard certainly mentions knowing Colonel Durnford, Lieutenant Vause's commanding officer, who died at Isandlwana.

Wyatt Vause survived, and married Maggie Cottam, and their daughter Lily Vause married my grandfather, Percy Hayes, in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, in 1904. I still have a copy of Allan Quatermain given to my father as a Christmas present when he was 11, inscribed in my grandfather Percy's hand: "Frank Hayes Xmas 1918".

I suspect that my grandfather read Rider Haggard's books as a child, growing up in Axbridge, Somerset. Perhaps they even influenced him to seek his fortune in South Africa. He gave one to his son as a Christmas present. And when I was at school, one headmaster, Wally Meears, who was roughly the same generation as my grandfather, made sure that the school library was well-stocked with Rider Haggard books. I suspect that it may partly have been because though Rider Haggard had little time for the Boers, he had quite a lot of sympathy for the "natives", especially the Zulus.

Another headmaster, Henry Nathaniel Beckwith, who was the same age as my father, was also a believer in the rightness of the British Empire, and also stocked the school library with books by Rider Haggard and also with magazines like the Illustrated London News and Sphere, which, in between the numerous photos of ancient Greek pottery unearthed at archaeological digs, occasionally had pictures of more exciting events like John Derry, test pilot, crashing his DH 110 at the 1952 Farnborough Air Show.

But, apart from the imperialist sub-text, Haggard was a pretty good story teller, and his description of the end of She still gives Stephen King a run for his money.

View all my reviews

Tinyiko Sam Maluleke's Blog: South African Public Sector Strike: The Beginning of the End?

I didn't notice the public servants' stike much, perhaps because I don't get out a lot, especially since my car wouldn't start for a few weeks and I had to save up for a new battery. So it's just the snippets I've caught on the news that have made me aware of it. But blogs now provide an alternative to the mainstream media, and I think some of my blogging friends hav said things worth sharing.

I think Tinyiko Maluleke, a missiologist at the University of South Africa, has it right when he says: Tinyiko Sam Maluleke's Blog: South African Public Sector Strike: The Beginning of the End?:
These developments are revealing. The unions are on the back-foot. They have been outmaneuvered, firmly rebuffed and roundly rebuked. Sensing that it will be hard for the unions to sustain this strike for two more weeks without losing public support and the morale of their members, government has mischieviously made an offer that is no great improvement on the previous offer. Of course government does not have the money. We all know about the budget deficit. Of course 7.5 percent is above the current inflation rate. But 7.5 percent of what? The widespread perceptions of a wasteful government which is tolerant of corruption will not win much sympathy for the government position.

But there are some things that make one lose sympathy for the strikers' cause too. As Jenny Hillebrand, a Methodist seminary student in Pietermaritzburg puts it: Carpenter's Shoes: Caution:
The seminarians spent the afternoon at the hospital again today. When I arrived I was waved away from the gate by the seminary president who was on his cell phone to union leaders. The striking workers had warned him that if we went in to the hospital they would call a crowd who would make it difficult for us to get out again. He negotiated, and as far as I understand, it was agreed that we could go in for two hours, we were to clean the wards, but not care for patients and one of the union members would come with us. There were a handful of policemen and a handful of strikers.

In the end we went in and out quite uneventfully. I know that the strikers want more money, but I can't see the justice in allowing helpless people to suffer as a tool to get their own way.

I have an ambivalent feeling about this. I feel sorry for neglected patients in hospitals, and feel that it is irresponsible to neglect them. At the same time, I wouldn't want to be a scab.

Cori quotes from another source: Cori's Blog: South Africa: Hopeful:
Yes, the strikes are about money, but there's something deeper going on - something at the relational level. The mere occurence of a strike, it could be argued, bears evidence of relational breakdown. Then there are relational implications in the huge earnings differentials between top and bottom public service officials - it says something about how people are valued. Intimidation and violence only occur where relational capacity is already damaged, and they certainly effect little that is relationally redemptive. It might not be enough to address the money issues without addressing the relational issues. Justice is a complex matter, but at its heart, justice has to be relational.

and goes on to say:

I thought this an important slant on the situation and it leads me to wonder what I can do to restore relationship with my fellow South Africans. On a really small scale, it felt important to me that when a few hundred teachers sang and danced their way through The Junction (a relatively upmarket shopping center in Pretoria North) I stood by and listened to what they were saying and read their signs. It felt important to listen and hear and take in. It felt important that I could exchange a few words with some of these teachers and show them that I cared about what they had to say. It sounds really insignificant but it feels important to me that we think about our relationship with others who feel unjustly treated. By being open to hear them, we may be taking a small step towards redemptive relationship.

And lurking behind all this is what is going on to the north of us, in Zimbabwe. Tinyiko Maluleke mentions the strains in the tripartite alliance between the ANC, Cosatu and the Communist Party. In Zimbabwe the relationship between the government and the trade unions lies shattered, and all Thabo's horses and all Thabo's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again. Is the same thing happening here? When it happened in Zim, millions of refugees came here. If it happens here, where will they, and we, go?

01 September 2010

Legends from a small country: The Micro Frog of Floral Doom

Arthur Goldstuck, the veteran debunker of urban legends, tells of a new one that has apparently been doing the rounds in the Western Cape.

If you get an e-mail along these lines: Legends from a small country: The Micro Frog of Floral Doom:
If you see someone selling arum lillies you must call City Law Enforcement on (021) 596 1400/1424

It is the start of Arum Lily season. A tiny endangered Arum Lily Micro Frog breeds inside the water and dew held in the cup of these Lilies. We are desperate to curtail the gross destruction of Lilies. Please don't buy Lilies sold at traffic intersections.

... don't be alarmed. You can bin it where you put those other ones from a dying auntie who wants to leave you her ex-dictator husbands fortune.

As Arthur explains: Legends from a small country: The Micro Frog of Floral Doom:
The truly sad part about this plea is that the Arum Lily Micro Frog ... does ... not ... exist.

It is an urban legend, cobbled together from two distinct species of frog, the sprouting of flower sellers on the streets of Cape Town as spring approaches, and good old fashioned misinformation. Mix in the discovery of a new species of micro frog as the urban legend was spreading, and suddenly our inboxes were no longer safe from the amphibian invasion.

And you can read the full story on his blog.

Happy Spring Day! Happy New Year!

Today, we are told, is officially the start of Spring, and it is also New Year's Day -- welcome to the year 7519 (I think).

Of course to those on the old calendar, the new year won't begin for another 13 days (14 September Gregorian), and for those who paid attention in geography lessons at school spring won't begin until the equinox on 21 September, or thereabouts.

But according to our mulberry trea, it's already been spring for a couple of weeks. It seems to sprout its new leaves on about 19/20 August every year. And that's just about when the jacarandas finish losing their leaves -- they always seem to be the last.

It's been a warm winter. It was cold for a couple of weeks during the world cup, but it's felt like spring for well over a month now.

Twenty-one years ago the Patriarch of Constantinople, Dimitrios, urged Orthodox Christians to make 1 September a day of prayer for God's creation and for the environment. You can read his message here. His successor as Patriarch, Bartholomew, has continued to encourage the practice, and as a result has been named the first among the top 15 "green" religious leaders. The day has since been adopted by other Christian bodies as well, and the first day of spring seems like an appropriate time for it.

Wednesday 1st September 2010

* Tone 5 - Week after PENTECOST 14

  • St Simeon Stylites (the Elder) (459)
  • St Martha mother of St Simeon Stylites (the elder) (c 428)
  • Martyr Aithalas the Persian (380)
  • Holy Forty Women Martyrs and Martyr Ammon the Deacon their teacher, at Heraclea (4th)
  • Righteous Joshua the Son of Nun (16th BC)
  • St Fiacre, Hermit of Meaux (670)
  • St Giles the Greek, Hermit and Abbot (8th)
  • St Drithelm of Melrose, Monk (c 700)

Revised Julian (New Style) Calendar


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