A good place to live...

Monday, 22 February 2010

Prayer and peacekeeping

We heard something remarkable yesterday: a very senior Army Officer, Vere --, came to speak to us on Peacekeeping.
His particular story concerned the appointment he'd had as a Brigadier in 1993 - having been given a really excellent post as Deputy Warden of the Cinque Ports (and a splendid array of other honorifics), a nice house, and the happy prospect of 3 years with his wife, Penny, as Chatelaine. Overnight things changed: he was asked to go to Bosnia as chief peace-negotiator: and accepted.
He found the three groups of combatants: the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, would not be in the same room together [one group only came if everyone was there, the other two would not come if either of their two groups was present] - but that was briskly overcome.
The UN had announced that Srebrenica was to be a 'Safe Haven' - which sounded good, but no-one knew what it might mean on the ground. So a short ceasefire was agreed while this was clarified by the negotiators, with Vere.
They were there to define what is meant by a "Safe Haven" - and they had precisely 72 hours in which to do it.
They met, and after 18 hours of talking, nothing had been agreed. Vere decided to call a break: and he went back to his room to sit and think.
He could see absolutely no way of getting agreement between the 3 groups: if something was right for one, the other two objected, and so it went on. He had all the papers and notes in front of him, acutely aware that time was so short, and so much yet to do - and he took the only step open to him.

He got down on his knees and prayed.

After some time, he got up and returned to his desk, half expecting, as he said laughing, to hear a heavenly voice. Silence. So he spread the papers out in front of him, and as he did so, his eye fell on one point - among all the others - and suddenly KNEW that was the way to get everyone's agreement. He knew without a shadow of doubt that his prayer had been answered in a way he could not have imagined.
After his talk, I asked him about the subsequent massacre at Srebrenica, which happened 2 years later - he was interesting on that, too - there had been a small group of leaders in Srebrenica, one of whom was truly charismatic. The overall leader of that area wanted to get NATO involved, and worked out that Srebrenica was key to that happening: so he called the village leaders, including their charismatic 'headman' to a meeting - and while they were away, he arranged for a major attack. without their leaders, the village could not rally sufficiently, and were overcome - Vere said he thought that no-one probably had foreseen that there could be a massacre... (perhaps, and perhaps not, the Dutch are still agonising over this).
He told us, too, that before he left Dover, the local Vicar came to tell him that the congregation in the local church had decided to meet every single day that Vere was away, to pray for him - and the vicar was among them. He gave Vere two things: one was a New Testament, which he carried in his shirt pocket all through the campaign and for years afterwards, and which is now with his son-in-law in Afghanistan; the second thing was a little card with the Serenity Prayer - 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.' That card he also carried with him, and after a time - when the Belgian General was struggling with his own negotiations - Vere leaned across during one meeting and gave it to him to read.
He was surprised not to get the card back - but clearly it had a profound effect on the Belgian General, who wrote a book in which he claimed that action [ie giving him the prayer card] had changed his life.
Wonderful story!

Serenity Prayer: [in full - I didn't know it had a further 'verse']
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen. --Reinhold Niebuhr

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Water world!

The boiler serviced, we learnt that the anti-corrosion gadget on the pressurised water cylinder, had itself corroded.

Two weeks later, the small ceramic spigot - mounting for a titanium rod - and costing £87 ... arrived with the plumber. He shared our lunch since he was delayed and we welcome him here! ...and then set about removing the original anti-corrosion gadget. Which had welded itself to the cylinder. An anxious Martin appeared, headlight in place, to alert us to the problem, he was having to drill it out - bit by bit.

Having a remarkable husband, who has almost everything anyone could ever need - from books on early boat-building to tiny tools suitable for unscrewing broken ceramic gadgets - by some miracle he found his tools straight away, tucked under the flap of one of the mountain of cardboard boxes in the garage. The gadget was unscrewed in due course, and the new one placed - water on, problem solved.

Martin's fear had been that the small ceramic remains would not come out, and then a new cylinder was the only option: not a welcome thought - thank goodness for the tiny tools!

Why do we need such a gadget? well, pressurised cylinders cannot be left to corrode - reaction between different metals - and risk an explosion. No-one asks why, in this case, there should need to be different metals, if they are known to react. There is no answer, probably.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Dido and Aeneas

We had Alexander to stay for a night, and caught up on some news, all too briefly. He has been asked to sing the part of the Sorcerer in Dido and Aeneas, on the last day of the Summer term - what a thrilling way to conclude one chapter of his life so far!

Wanting to hear the music, I spent some time searching for reviews: and came up with this really excellent site (link under 'Music Review'):

It seems that most recordings have chosen a Sorceress, rather than a man (and of the samples I have heard, most sound pretty horrible, over-acting and screechy) but the music is a delight.

Alexander's regret that the choice of Opera contained far more female parts than male, in a boys' school, misses the point that this was presumably chosen to highlight the voice of an outstanding soprano - a girl who is set to do great things.
His lovely voice will make a delicious contrast. Roll on July!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

World Service

As a long-time listener to the World Service, I am confident that the standards are not what they were. In Scotland we heard quantities of short, illuminating programmes, from experts presenting their information, to local stations worldwide providing snapshots of their immediate concerns. Science, the Arts, in depth analysis - Bridget --'s reports from Russia were memorable.

Now we hear the News, trailers for programmes, bits of atonal 'linking' music, more News, some interviews of dubious quality with people of dubious interest - and the whole in need of a firm, effective Editor.

Gone are the more recent Plays contributed by different countries; gone are the phone-ins from listeners putting questions to international figures; in other words - gone is the international dimension. Replaced by domestically produced programmes full of waffle; 'world music' programmes usually consisting of an entire CD played without comment [lazy presenter!] its merit presumed to lie in its authentically different sound - not in any musicality.

Gone too is 'Lilliebulero' the theme-tune of the World Service since time immemorial ... which I can remember listening to all over the world, in Doha, in Jakarta, in Malaya - played by the Band of the Coldstream Guards [I think] with all that represented to expatriates, of home - or Home.

The regret lies in the loss of a first-rate service; which also served as an encouragement to other countries [some with no other access to world news] and other individuals - eg Burma's brave protesters. A loss to liberty: as well as a cultural loss.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Tea and Crumpets

A title taken from the life of the Earl of Suffolk, otherwise 'mad Jack Howard' whose life and exploits we were regaled with over *Tea and Crumpets* in the village hall this afternoon.

109 people turned up for this - a considerable triumph for the organisers. The hope was to raise some money for soldiers' charities - SSAFA, Ghurkhas, and Help for Heroes... and as tickets were £3 each and a collection was taken at the end, it should have raised something worthwhile.

It was a little surreal. We had a young man with us, Edmund, still at Headley Court in rehab after his armoured car was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. He spoke a little afterwards, and allowed questions - brave of him. He said that his life was saved in the first hour after the explosion: a girl of 19 turned up immediately and effectively - having learnt but never practised the drill, she put it all into action and the helicopter came with the medics and saved his life. We knew already from his aunt [a friend] that he had been given some totally amazing amount of blood on the return flight - something like 50 pints - and had so very nearly died, before he even reached Britain.

But, having eaten our crumpets, and drunk our tea, and had it all cleared away by volunteers (dressed in black with white frilly aprons!) we sang Wartime songs from both World Wars: with gusto - even the Generals, and I couldn't help feeling that it really was the weirdest business when a young man still in metal splints and a wheel chair, with all the memories of his ghastly experience desperately fresh, sat surrounded by people singing patriotic songs about a war 50 years ago.

What his mother and grandmother thought, heaven knows, as they sat with Edmund - smiling through.

This business of growing older - brings some judgements which aren't comfortable. Whether (seeing Edmund) on the futility and waste of war - which contrasts so strongly with my then-emotions during the Falklands when I lay awake all night listening to the "I counted them all out and I counted them all in" reportage - or whether on the venality and utter, crass, self-seeking awfulness of Tony Blair taking us into Iraq. Taking an army into a war, on a peacetime budget - it beggars all belief: especially when it is allied with the evidence emerging at the Chilcott enquiry, tame as that is compared to the information which would have emerged had barristers been permitted, and evidence on oath.

Growing older is not about how young the policemen are, but about seeing more clearly a world of chimeras, and being thankful you are no longer 'young' and inheriting such a colossal mess.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Walking towards Lent...

Some more of the poet Kahlil Gibran, whose poetry I read in intermittent waves of delight...

You progress not through improving what has been done, but by reaching toward what has yet to be done.

Of life's two chief prizes, beauty and truth, I found the first in a loving heart and the second in a labourer's hand.

The heartbreak of love sings, the sadness of knowledge speaks, the melancholy of desire whispers, and the anguish of poverty weeps. But there is a sorrow deeper than love, loftier than knowledge, stronger than desire, and more bitter than poverty. It is mute and has no voice; its eyes glitter like stars.

The fear of hell is hell itself, and the longing for paradise is paradise itself.
Where can I find a man governed by reason instead of habits and urges?
I prefer to be a dreamer among the humblest, with visions to be realised, than lord among those without dreams and desires.

People speak of plague with fear and tremor, yet of destroyers like Alexander and Napoleon, they speak with ecstatic reverence.

Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.

Keep me from the wisdom that does not weep, and the philosophy that does not laugh, and the pride that does not bow its head before a child.

Art is a step in the known, 
toward the unknown.

When the earth exhales it gives birth to us. When it inhales death is our lot.

If reward is the goal of religion, if patriotism serves self interest, and if education is pursued for advancement, then I would prefer to be a nonbeliever, a non-patriot, and a humbly ignorant man.

An epoch will come when people will disclaim kinship with us, as we disclaim kinship with the monkeys.

Truth is the daughter of Inspiration; analysis and debate keep the people away from Truth.

Does the song of the sea end at the shore or in the hearts of those who listen to it?

The spiritual man is he who has experienced all earthly things and is in revolt against them.

If you wish to see the valleys, climb to the mountain top; if you desire to see the mountain top, rise into the cloud; but if you seek to understand the cloud, close your eyes and think.

Most of us hover dubiously between mute rebellion and prattling submission.

The butterfly will continue to hover over the field and the dewdrops will still glitter upon the grass when the pyramids of Egypt are leveled and the skyscrapers of New York are no more.

The poet is he who makes you feel, after reading his poem, that his best verses have not yet been composed.

The means of reviving a language lie in the heart of the poet and upon his lips and between his fingers. The poet is the mediator between the creative power and the people. He is the wire that transmits the news of the world of spirit to the world of research. The poet is the father and mother of the language, which goes wherever he goes. When he dies, it remains prostrate over his grave, weeping and forlorn, until another poet comes to uplift it.

~ ~ ~
Almost the temptation is to add... 'Discuss'

Friday, 5 February 2010

music, maestro

this is the link to a very beautiful short video recording of Andrea Boccelli singing the Lord's Prayer - with the Mormon Choir.

How satisfying!

Funny things, parties. If you give them, you [almost] cannot enjoy them: you are so busy making sure that everyone has all they need, and someone to talk to without getting stuck somewhere.

We had 53 people whom we especially wanted to thank for their support and encouragement during the past 2 years, while we tried our best to sell our previous house - so this was also to celebrate being 'the proud owners of ONE house, and NO bank bridging loan'

A huge buzz of chatter, as if these were people who had not seen one another for months, instead of on an almost daily basis! and trying to get them to start eating the food while it was still hot - or even warm - was quite beyond me. However they polished everything off, and seemed replete, and only afterwards did I re-discover the foil-covered dishes in the hotbox! with yet more food...

We thought of the villages which have lost their school, their post office, and their shop - just as our village has - and how often that seems to mean that everything is lost: and the residents think only of how they might reach the nearest town for their shopping - with diminished contact locally, so that new people moving in find it 'unfriendly'. We have a small village hall - previously the school - which is used for a variety of different activities, from a murder-mystery dinner; to a weekly lunch club; to a committee room, etc. and through that, and the church, we have a way of meeting one another regularly, and no-one is left out unless they choose not to come to anything. [Our other neighbours, for instance, don't accept invitations, although they came to the small drinks party we had soon after they arrived, to introduce them - and have never asked back. They probably took a look and decided not to bother!!]

Clearing up this morning: hoovering, taking away the dishes/glasses/cloths and flowers: life back to normal, the farmyard full of plump chickens, dogs, horses, and geese. As if parties happened every day and were swept away with the yard broom. Funny, satisfying, and 'please will you have another party next year, same time same place?' said someone last night, and all concurred!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Wonderful recipes!

It is time for our party - postponed by the snow last month. It is a good time of year to have one: people have 'recovered' from Christmas, Lent is not yet upon us, and the dullness of winter weather makes a party seem doubly exciting.

Out came the recipe book: and the strange flutters of paper from ancient inspirations - each one has a memory, though by no means all of them were ever cooked!

Bread from Holy Island - a Retreat on Lindisfarne, where the bread appeared fresh and hot each breakfast. All the more welcome as we came back from an early service at the little church - an arctic trek through the bitter January wind. Memorably cold; memorably inspiring. Going to bed was a matter of removing one's clothes [reluctantly and very fast indeed] climbing into a chilly bed, and placing all the said clothes on top of the bedding in the hope of warmth. Really silly - it would have been better to sleep in them all!

Nasi Goreng - an Aunt's much-loved recipe: almost impossible to re-create as she was someone who added little bits of this-and-that without writing them down - and the spices came from some unknown source. Indonesian Rijstaffel has a completely different taste in Holland. I remember choosing that dish in a restaurant, expecting the light and subtle collection of flavours that I had eaten in Jakarta during the years we lived there. Instead came an unmistakably Dutch invention: stodgy, and filling, but no idea of the subtleties possible.

Lots of recipes in my daughter's handwriting: her dinner parties, and supper parties, in London - quick and delicious after-work, and always decorative and usually scrumptious. We had one pudding which is still a winner: although the first time it gave huge problems, due to the instructions not specifying the SIZE of the 6 oranges to be used. I had large, Jaffa oranges - they were in season - but the amount of juice made the pudding swim and every ingenious 'thickener' had to be used. It turned out that the oranges were meant to be small 'normal' oranges... the quantity [my version] was amazing: luckily everyone loved it...!

So, tomorrow is a different opportunity - finger foods, or light buffet, or however you describe it. Some bought from Tesco [!] some made - including a Tarte Flamiche which is leeks, and tarragon, and cheese in a pastry case - enough for 48! which should keep us cheerful, I hope.

Timings - wonderful tissue paper bows will pin on the walls; the log=burner will glow, and quantities of food and wine will welcome our friends - who have been so supportive during the long 2 years of worry. How lovely to be able to thank them all.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A new candidate

Interesting experience, being one of 500 individuals converging on a theatre in order to sit for 6 hours in the process of choosing a parliamentary candidate.

Bureaucracy [were our names on the pre-registration list - only one? cannot admit t'other!] Oh for commonsense.

Tremendous buzz - people at tables reading through the CVs of the 6 finalists - people discussing animatedly inside the theatre. We had each a folder containing biro, stapled list of CVs, sheet for personal aides memoires, and a separate stapled group of 5 sheets listing the candidates, for the voting process [X for your choice, all gathered in buckets passed along the rows, taken and counted - then the one with least votes eliminated, and a second round of voting - until a clear winner with 50% emerged].

It was genuinely exciting to be part of a democratic process. Two of the candidates had called on us - remote as we are - and we had a chance to see what they were like. They all had web-sites; and these illustrated once again the absolutely KEY importance of a good website, as the means of putting across your own distinctive approach, experience, and background. Neither of the two candidates we had met had a good website: pleasant, cheerful but not comprehensive. Immediately one felt that one candidate was outstanding - solely on his website. If he had [apparently] glossed the extent of his experience at Westminster, then who except the other candidates would know?

Listening to the really excellent interview process - confidence-inspiring questioner, giving plenty of space for the prepared answers - part of our judgement needed to be about body-language, facility with the 'surprise' question ["you are on the Chilcott enquiry, what would your question be for Tony Blair?"] and how compelling might be their interest in concerns which matter to 'us' the audience. How to manage your time at Westminster [my question, which was put to each candidate] how to interest young people in politics, and really anything that pointed to a future that was hopeful.

One of our visitors was eliminated in the first round; the other in the second round, where a clear winner emerged. We recognised the power of local connections: perhaps there is an urge for accountability, and therefore someone with family locally must be more honest, less likely to be in any expenses scandal. People sitting near us all asked: "which is the local one" without weighting for other skills. It was a good choice; but at the same time there was one outstanding candidate, whose abilities as a Barrister meant she could face us without nerves, answer the question and the intention with clarity and conviction; and had the personality to complement all of this.

The sad part is that this one of the last of the safe seats: the remaining candidates have precisely 2 seats left - both due to have their 3 [only] candidates selected by HQ - and with all the people who were not adopted in other seats, this is a small opening. Without those safe seats, the alternative is to fight a Labour or Lib-Dem seat where the sitting MP is stepping down, and there is some equal challenge. But with so little time to go: perhaps weeks, it really is going to be hard for those excellent people.

We shall be the poorer without them in government. the one white hope of all of this is that we have people of utmost probity and ability, willing to serve. The people we listened to were exceptional candidates: it is amazing that such good people come forward.

Now for the election itself... whenever that might come.