Saturday, 10 April 2010


“To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” - Henri Amiel

Old age is something that we have to come to terms with if we survive long enough. Sickness is one of its attendant misfortunes and for some of us, these two ills will cause much pain and sorrow. What is the best season to die for an old sick man? Spring I think, for to die in such a glorious time of the year surrounded by the blooming flowers, birdsong, the warming sun and the promise of so much life bursting forth after the dead winter surely is a promise of a victory of life over death, of joy over despair, of healing over sickness?

Here is Edvard Grieg’s “Våren” or “Last Spring”. It rejoices in spring, but it is to be a last spring, for the poet knows that he will see no other. Between 1877 and 1880, Grieg produced a set of songs as his Op. 33 on texts by the so-called “peasant-poet” of Norway, Aasmund Vinje (1818-1870). The composer had been greatly inspired by the then-late poet’s verses, so much so that after completing the set, he decided to arrange two of its songs for string orchestra, this one The Last Spring and The Wounded Heart. The last Spring is a hauntingly beautiful and sad piece of music, but are not our sweetest songs, the saddest also?

The singer is the Norwegian singing sensation Sissel, who sings this song in a disarmingly simple and straightforward manner without a trace of sentimentality. Enjoy it!

Thursday, 8 April 2010


“We are all dietetic sinners; only a small percent of what we eat nourishes us; the balance goes to waste and loss of energy.” - William Osler

I had a very busy day today, spent with some fellow academics who were visiting our College from Malaysia. The meeting was very successful and we ended up signing a memorandum of understanding that will allow our two organisations to co-operate in our educational goals. I took them out to lunch, mindful of their religious dietary restrictions as they were Muslim. We have a plethora of restaurants very close to our College in the City and these can cater to a wide variety of tastes and dietary demands: Australian, Asian, European, American, African cuisines are all well represented in their endless varieties, but also there are vegan, vegetarian, classic, new, experimental cuisines, etc.

We ended up going to Chillipadi, a contemporary Asian restaurant which has the added benefit of being 100% certified Halal. This means that Moslem people can eat freely as the meal is prepared according to the religious restrictions placed on diet by Islam. “Halal” in Arabic means “lawful” or “legal” and as it applies to food, it means that certain foods or components of food are forbidden, while what is allowed has to be prepared in prescribed ways. “Halal” is the opposite of “Haraam” meaning “Harmful” and hence forbidden.

The Quran specifies the forbidden (Haraam) substances and foods as:
•    Pork (flesh of pig, swine)
•    Blood
•    Animals slaughtered in the name of any other god except Allah.
•    All that has been dedicated or offered to an idolatrous altar, or saint or divine being
•    Carrion
•    An animal strangled, beaten to death, killed by a fall, savaged by a beast of prey (except that which has been slaughtered subsequently, while still being alive)
•    Food over which Allah’s name is not pronounced
•    Alcohol and other intoxicating substances.

Any allowed meat which is to be consumed has to be killed by ritual slaughter called “Dhabiha”. This consists of a swift, deep incision with a sharp knife on the neck, cutting the jugular veins and carotid arteries on both sides of the neck, but leaving the spinal cord intact. This method is believed by Muslims to kill instantly and painlessly, thus humanely, for the animal. Fish and most sea-life are excluded from the Dhabiha rule.

For lunch at Chillipadi we ordered several plates which had placed in the centre of the table and we then shared around. We had tea and iced water to drink. We ate the following:
•    Laksa noodles with seafood
•    Penang prawn noodles
•    Curry chicken rice
•    Thai beef salad
•    Vegetarian Mee Goreng with eggs
•    Vegetarian Nasi Goreng with eggs

The food was quite nice and my Malaysian guests were very complimentary and enjoyed it very much.

In the afternoon I had a three hour meeting, which left me quite exhausted. Just as well the weekend is looming ahead, I’m looking forward to the break!


“We long for an affection altogether ignorant of our faults.  Heaven has accorded this to us in the uncritical canine attachment.” - George Eliot

I read the news with great dismay and my faith in the human species greatly diminishes each day. What monsters we humans are! What new horrors are we yet to commit, what terrible deeds to shock and terrify each other? What new ways to kill and maim, torture and humiliate shall we discover?

In Kingston, Jamaica, Garsha Wilson a taxi driver is accused of raping a 12-year-old girl, then strangling her. After thinking she was dead, he buried her in a shallow grave and covered it with rocks. Unfortunately for him and luckily for the girl, she was indeed alive, only unconscious, and she was able to dig herself out of her grave and raise the alarm.

In Russia, two men are being tried for killing, then chopping up a 16-year-old girl, cooking and serving her flesh with potatoes for dinner. Maxim Golovatskikh and his friend Yuri Mozhnov, both 20-year-olds, drowned and then butchered the hapless girl. Their excuse was that they were “hungry and drunk”. One of the jurors at the trial became ill after looking at the graphic photographs provided by the police. Remains of the girl were disposed of in a rubbish skip.

Brian Jones, a 63-year-old jilted husband in Britain stabbed his ex-wife to death as she was preparing to celebrate the end of their 10-year marriage with a “divorce party”. A lover was involved and the husband who was visiting a friend of his next door to the matrimonial home “snapped” when he saw a banner up with the inscription “The Party’s Here” and a picture of himself with the message “Pin the Tail on the X”.

Yet more bombs have ripped through apartment buildings across Baghdad, while another bomb exploded in a market, killing 50 people and injuring more than 160. Al-Qaida insurgents have been blamed by officials as the country struggles to come to terms with an unresolved election result. It was the fourth set of attacks with multiple casualties across Iraq in five days…

In Kyrgysztan, about 50 people died yesterday in riots in the capital while nationwide the death toll may be higher than 100 people. The dead had multiple gunshot wounds, the police being the ones suspected for the slayings. More than 500 people are also thought to be injured. Opponents of the president Kurmanbek Bakiyev took control of the country after the day of violence, which ended with Bakiyev fleeing the capital.

And then a ray of sunshine amongst the gloom… A guide dog helped his blind master David Quarmby, a British man 61 years old, to reach home (after a journey of nearly 200 km) before it collapsed and died of a cancer. The man had no idea his dog was dying of a malignant spleen tumour. The man had no idea the dog was sick, the only indication that something was wrong being its refusal to gobble up its usual doggy treat. When they got home and the dog was taken to the vet after it collapsed, the malignancy was found. I’m afraid the news is bad. The dog died as it was given anaesthetic to prepare it for surgery and its master is inconsolable.

Sometimes, I just wish I were a dog…

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


“The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.” – Oscar Wilde

I was reading a friend’s blog today and she mentioned in one of her posts how she was considered by people around her as “old” while she herself never thought of herself as “old”. I am getting to the stage now where I think of myself as beginning the down hill ride to where old age resides. And how quickly one may tumble down that hill, especially as one nears the final few stretches to the bottom. The greatest surprise of all perhaps is all the while one is growing old, one is still feeling young. What a shock that can be if one is buoyant and bursting with youthful enthusiasm and verve, if one is laughing and thinking young and then, wham! One inadvertently gazes into a mirror and who on earth is that …old person staring back?

Perhaps the most disheartening part of growing old is the loss of one’s youthful dreams. The loss of the illusions, the fantasies, the ideals of youth is a shocking realisation. Whether this loss has occurred despite ourselves, whether it has occurred as consequence of our life’s vicissitudes, or whether we have done it voluntarily, it hardly matters. What matters is the hopelessness of that awareness, which truly ushers in a very rapid senescence.

This poem I wrote several years ago when I discovered that a good school friend had “progressed” in the world and had “fallen into” a very good position in the public service, had “married well” into a family of influence and “enjoyed the good life”… When I met him after many years I could hardly recognise him but unfortunately we had nothing to talk about as we had no longer anything in common.

The Ballad of the Grand Bureaucrat

And so I got tired of talking of the moon,
The flowers, the flying birds, the blue skies above.
Princes on white chargers live only in fairy tales,
Together with Beauty, the elves and trolls.

The years have passed by and I no longer fantasise,
No more accept my mind’s creations without thought.
I grew older, and all my boyhood dreams died,
While my tender heart was still young…

Now everything I see, with cool logic I view,
Before I speak I think all things through.
The world’s a liar, a relentless, cruel, unjust master
Who will crush you if you don’t think as he does.

I exchanged my innocent childish hopes
With facts, inhuman numbers, hard calculations.
A marriage by proxy, the bride’s dowry rich,
As a result, all at the office call me “Sir”…

And if sometimes the tie chokes me,
I rarely remember my childhood fables,
And in the realm of my office, I quickly forget
All babyish nonsense and the make-believe.

I reign, I order, I command, I’m the man in charge
Everyone trembles when I raise my voice.
A public servant and bureaucrat though I be,
The public is ill-served by me.

The rules and protocol, laws, regulations I know off by heart,
And only if one oils my wheels will I do what I should…
The whole world’s a sinking ship with rotting timbers,
Who am I to start stopping the hulk’s holes?

It’s only in the darkness of my bed in blackest night
That I often wake in fright –
My childhood’s lovely pastel-coloured dreams haunt me
But now torture me as nightmares unrelenting…

Jacqui BB hosts Poetry Wednesday. Visit her blog for more poetry!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


“Who can hope to be safe? who sufficiently cautious? Guard himself as he may, every moment's an ambush.” - Horace

News of the coalmine disaster in West Virginia has landed on my computer screen. This is right after the dramatic rescue of miners in Shanxi, China after spending nine days in a flooded mine a few days ago. China has a long history of mining accidents and many miners have unfortunately perished, as the safety standards are not as high as they are in most other parts of the world. The rescue effort yesterday and the miraculous return of 115 miners to the surface surprised everyone not least the Chinese themselves who are used to many a fatal mining accident on a regular basis.

Five bodies have been recovered now, and those were the unlucky ones… Unfortunately 33 more miners are still missing, also suspected dead. The Chinese miners accused their bosses of ignoring warning signs of danger as water was noticed leaking into the pit days before the latest disaster. Unfortunately the workers’ pleas were unheeded and when disaster struck, everyone expected the worse. I can only imagine the terror of those trapped workers in the wet darkness as they ate pine tree bark from construction wood poles and drank cold water to stay alive for the eight days and nights they were underground... In any case most survived!

Which tragically is not the same for the American miners. Although safety standards and better working conditions are the case in the USA, the accident yesterday confirms the fact that mining is a dangerous occupation in any country of the world. At least 25 miners are dead and four are still missing. I think of this and the thought of these innocent lives lost while trying to earn a living for their families haunts me. Each of them left their families the previous day and went into the mine, the thought of death far from their mind. Each spouse, child, relative and friend waited to see them back after work but instead this tragic piece of news that interrupted so many lives by putting an end to some of them.

There will always be mines and there will always be accidents. However, it is up to us as a society to demand safe working environments for everyone who works for a living. It is up to us to ensure that mines are safe and that full precautions are taken to make this occupation as safe as possible. That is the only way to reduce the number of accidents and reduce the number of deaths. We must reaffirm our commitment to the prevention of accidents, injuries, illnesses and death in the workplace. We must demand prevention programs and the stringent enforcement of health and safety laws.

Monday, 5 April 2010


“What is tolerance?  It is the consequence of humanity.  We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly - that is the first law of nature.” -Voltaire

As all good things come to an end, so did this brief holiday over the Easter weekend. It was a beautiful, restful few days with friends, family, good food and beautiful weather. It is such pleasant, short and relaxing breaks that help us to restore our energy and assist us to find the courage to continue with our daily grind.

We watched an interesting movie from Israel today. It was Eran Kolirin’s 2007 “The Band’s Visit”, a film which he both wrote and directed. The plot is deceptively simple and pace is relaxed and gentle, with some remarkably good performances by Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz as the two leads, Tawfiq (the Egyptian band leader) and Dina (the Israeli shopkeeper).

The story concerns an Egyptian police band from Alexandria who goes to Israel for a concert to celebrate the opening of an Arab culture centre. The band arrives, but unfortunately due to a mix-up nobody is waiting for them at the airport and they decide to catch a bus and get to the town where they are expected to play on their own. They get hopelessly lost due to misunderstanding caused by a mispronunciation. They are marooned in a small town with nowhere to sleep and with little Israeli money. The kindness of the locals, headed by the outspoken Dina does a lot to highlight the commonality of human experience between the Arab and the Jew, the Egyptian and the Israeli, the man and the woman.

This is film that is made with consummate skill and is never forced. The story develops effortlessly and the interactions of the characters are natural and one can see that the tension between the two cultures and the two peoples dictate the initial awkwardness, suspicion and prejudice. The intimacy that develops between Tewfiq and Dina is a delight to watch and the help and advice one of the band members gives to a romantically challenged young Jewish boy is classic!

There is wisdom, gentle humour, earthiness and a delightful affirmation of humanity in this film. As a bonus, the music is very good and the song at the end of the film is worth waiting for as the credits roll through. Get your hands on it and watch it. It is an unexpectedly offbeat and delightful movie.

Sunday, 4 April 2010


“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.” - P.D. James

Happy Easter! We have had a lovely day, relaxing at home, enjoying the company of family and friends. The weather was perfect, an autumn day full of mild sunshine, and we spent a great deal of it in the garden. The jasmine perfumed the air and the zinnias were blooming wildly in the background. There was soft music playing and we broke our fast with a delicious lamb roast whilst sipping some delightful shiraz.

What better way to celebrate this glorious Easter Sunday than with a Renoir? His “Le déjeuner des canotiers” (Luncheon of the Boating Party) remains the best-known and most popular work of art at The Phillips Collection, in Washington DC, just as Duncan Phillips imagined it would be when he bought it in 1923. Each character in the painting has been identified. The woman playing with a dog is Aline Charigot (who would become the wife of Renoir); the painter Gustave Caillebotte is sitting in front of her; the man with a top hat is Charles Ephrussi (the editor of the Gazette des Beaux Arts) etc.

The painting captures an idyllic atmosphere as Renoir’s friends share food, wine, and conversation on a balcony overlooking the Seine at the Maison Fournaise restaurant in Chatou. Parisians flocked to the Maison Fournaise to rent rowing skiffs, eat a good meal, or stay the night. The painting also reflects the changing character of French society in the mid- to late 19th century. The restaurant welcomed customers of many classes, including businessmen, society women, artists, actresses, writers, critics, seamstresses, and shop girls. This diverse group embodied a new, modern, egalitarian Parisian society.

Renoir seems to have composed this complicated scene without advance studies or under-drawing. He also spent months making many changes to the canvas, painting the individual figures when his models were available, and adding the striped awning along the top edge. Nonetheless, Renoir retained the freshness of his vision, even as he revised, rearranged, and created a beautiful work of art.