Category Archives: Observer newspaper

Nothing new about armed maritime escorts

 

There’s nothing new about armed ships escorting British traders to their maritime destinations.( Royal Navy to accompany  UK-flagged ships in strait of Hormuz 26/07/2019) It happened a great deal during Napoleonic times. In the Irish port of Cork, there were often up to 70 ships in harbour waiting both for fair winds and for the trans-Atlantic naval escort to be organised. However, it was Walter Raleigh, favourite pirate-sailor of Queen Elizabeth I, who put his finger on it, writing: “Whoever commands the sea commands the trade; whoever commands the trade  commands the riches  of the world and consequently the world itself.”

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Filed under Articles, Iraq, journalist, Observer newspaper, Radio, Travel, Uncategorized

Visiting the birthplace of Syria’s much loved philosopher poet.

Yesterday, the @guardian carried a report by Martin Chulov about the latest bombing in Syria. It took place in the famous town of Maarat al Numan, not far from Aleppo. The town had been home to one of Syria’s much-loved philosophers, al Ma’arri. And so I took a  local bus there to find out more. This was before the war in Syria had become so terrible. Here’s the story:

I get off the bus at the top of the town and start assembling my meagre vocabulary in order to get to al Ma’arri’s tomb.

Abu ‘ala al Ma’arri or, to give him his full and glorious name, Abu ‘ala Ahmad ibn abd Allah ibn Suliman al Tanookhy al Ma’arri, was a writer I think I might well have got on with. He had a quirky, iconoclast take on life – a refreshing antidote to the strict, humourless way in which religion in Islamic countries today is sometimes both presented and perceived. He was also a vegetarian and an atheist – and therefore a very rare bird indeed in these parts.

Al Ma’arri was born in Ma’arrat al Numan, in 973CE and spent the greater part of his 84 years here. An illness left him blind from the age of five and he was forced to develop other compensatory skills including that of an exceptional memory which allowed him to study at Antioch, Aleppo and Tripoli – three of the great centres of learning at that time. His literary career was helped by the fact that he had a small private income.

In his 30s, he travelled to Baghdad where he established himself as a writer with very individual views and where he was much in demand at literary get-togethers. Those same views, however, worked against him when he decided that rather than sullying his art by selling his work he would simply recite it or offer it for discussion. Such high ideals, however, required a patron and unable to find one, and his own private income not being enough to survive on, he ran up against hard times and two years after arriving in Baghdad left it again to return to Ma’rrat al Numan. By then, he was 37 and on the way to adopting a lifestyle that was to characterise him for the rest of his long life.

From then on, he withdrew into himself, renouncing the excesses and vagaries of contemporary life. His own was governed by three things: his blindness, his writing and his solitude.

If this had been all I had to go on, I might have written off al Ma’arri as an eccentric recluse. However, his views marked him out as a very rare writer indeed for he spoke loud and clear of possibilities other than the orthodox.

The idea that there was only one true religion was one he rejected out of hand and, writing some seventy years before the First Crusade, was remarkably prescient: “Religions have only resulted in bigotry and bloodshed with sect fighting sect and fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a sword. All religions are contrary to reason and sanity.”

Read more about the town in my book My Home is Your Home

 

 

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Filed under Books, journalist, Kurds, literature, Observer newspaper, Syria, Travel, Uncategorized

It was an unusually sunny spring day and perfect for my plans: a two and a half hour train journey from Oxford across the border into Wales with the journey ending  in Cardiff,  a city I knew precious little about. Not that that mattered. My mission was simple:  to the find the statue of Wales’s most famous son. And everyone would know where that was, wouldn’t they? The Welsh are famous for being famous. After all, there’s Dylan Thomas, Tom Jones and Charlotte Church. There’s even the Prince of Wales himself.

There was no tourist office at the rail station so I asked at the first window: “ Could you tell me where I’ll find the statue of your most famous son, please.” When the  woman shook her head I moved on quickly. No point in adding to her embarrassment. The next ticket clerk shook her head apologetically. “ Don’t know about a statue but there’s a lot about him at the hospital.” And rightly since Nye Bevan was the founder of the National Health Service, Britain’s greatest humanitarian achievement ever made and all the  remarkable as it was introduced while Europe was still recovering from WW2.

As a champion of the poor and committed to nationalisation, Nye Bevan was disliked by the Conservative Party. During the war, he had pushed for support for the Soviet Union in its fight with Germany which is why Churchill called him “a squalid nuisance.”

The election following WW2 brought the Labour Party to power allowing Nye Bevan, on July 5  1948,  to introduce the National Health Service.

It’s a short walk from the rail station to Cardiff Castle – an architectural confection built by the Bute family from Scotland who made their money from Welsh coal – and there  I found a tour bus which took me round the city where we saw the new housing developments at the docks which consisted mainly of service companies now that there is no coal to export.

The tour guide had lots to say about the way in which the city had benefited from the Bute family. They donated various buildings and sums of money to Wales and in particular to the city of Cardiff, Not so much though about the way in which succeeding Bute family had prospered as coal magnates. Right now, in 2019, we are on the 7th Marques of Bute though the third one was the one most financially active,  making him one of the richest men  in Europe.

Strangely, although the Marques of Bute was mentioned three times, the guide never once referred to Nye Bevan and the institution that has made him famous.

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12 July, 2019 · 3:07 pm

Katherine Whitehorn, journalist

When I moved to London from  Dublin, Katherine Whitehorn represented what  I saw as the glitzy, literary London scene. She  was witty, audacious and down to earth  in a clever sort of way. There were other women journalists  who were  also great to read but she was top dog and unopposed queen of bedsitter land.

I remember a story she told about herself when leaving a rather staid women’s magazine. Her f inal contribution to the  handicraft section of the paper – which she just managed to get past  the internal censor – was a suggestion to the readers: ” Why not knit yourself a little Dutch Cap this winter.”

It was terrible to learn that she had advanced Alzheimers. The loss is ours.

 

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Filed under journalist, Observer newspaper, Uncategorized