Thursday, March 31, 2005

Public service announcement

Of course, I have opinions on the sad story of Terri Schiavo. But there's already been so much commentary -- not to mention disgraceful behaviour by people on both sides of the issue -- that I'm reluctant to add to the cacophony. There is, however, one lesson we can all learn from this terrible saga, and I don't think it can be highlighted too often.

Mrs Schiavo didn't have a chance to make her wishes clear, but you have. Many people think of a
Living Will as an instruction to pull the plug; in reality, the document can just as easily tell doctors to keep you alive, or specify that you want treatment in some circumstances but not others. Do it now and you could save your loved ones -- and society -- a great deal of trauma. Forms are available from The Natural Death Centre, among other places.

Another Del Col

I was a little surprised to get a Google alert containing the name of my late grandfather, Aldo Del Col. As it turns out, the spokesman for Multiple Myeloma Canada has the same name. (Far more Del Cols seem to have immigrated to Canada than to the U.S.)

I can remember, back before the Internet, thinking that my immediate family must be the only Del Cols in the world. I wonder if all the other Del Cols thought the same thing?

Sakharov Museum fined

The director and curator of the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow have been fined for an art exhibition that allegedly ridiculed the Orthodox Church.

Although this is a sad development for freedom of speech in Russia, the outcome is better than it might have been: the defendants had been facing up to five years in prison for their 'crime.'
Neeka's Backlog reports that the museum's director, Yuri Samodurov, credits Amnesty International with saving him from jail.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Interesting revelation from BBC radio: Apparently everyone in Britain (except us) has school-age children, and nobody knows how to pack a lunch.

They didn't spell this out, mind you. But if it weren't true, why on earth would the school dinners story have led this morning's news bulletins, ahead of the Indonesian earthquake, the House of Commons' findings on Darfur and the first human-rights conviction in Chechnya?

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Platonov's confession

The April issue of Harper's has a transcript of Andrei Platonov's appearance before the All-Russian Union of Soviet Writers in February 1932.

PLATONOV: It's clear that in depicting workers as dead figures moving about at random, I committed the harshest possible distortion of reality. I was reading Lenin, studying at a Soviet Party school, and I knew in practice what great forces organisation and discipline are, but these things slipped away because the petty-bourgeois element in me was spreading and smothering everything else. ...

The important thing, moreover, is the elimination in my future literary work of the harm that I did with my previous work, whether wittingly or unwittingly ... . Of course, it's hard to say whether I will succeed. These days, when I send a manuscript to an editorial office, it comes back without explanation. I would like it if, as a result of this meeting, this situation were to change ... I need to know that I am moving in the right direction, and this is utterly impossible on one's own.

ZELINSKY [Kornely Zelinsky, a literary critic]: There is only one way to preserve Platonov for the revolution, which is by means of severe criticism and frank questions ... . We have all asked ourselves the same question: Perhaps his style led him to a certain extent? But Andrei wished to reject this proposition, because it contains an element of self-justification. I think that the structure that Andrei has now created, and the way he is concentrating on his work is correct. The drawback of this -- Andrei said as much himself -- is that to a certain extent he thinks that he still has some hangnails in the form of not understanding all things.

Zoo news

It appears that yesterday an animal-rights activist paid £14 to London Zoo so that he/she could go in and drop leaflets about how cruel and unjust zoos are. We saw a number of these on the ground as we walked past Amur leopards, Asian vultures and other animals that will probably become extinct without captive breeding programmes.

It seems the pottos are courting, although not yet to an extent that embarrasses visitors. Since a pair were grooming quite near the front of the enclosure, I got a good look at the way they use their toothcombs, which I hadn't seen before. By the way, a word of advice to zoo staff: Put the placard identifying the animals on the other side of the enclosure, so people see it as they're walking toward them instead of when they're walking away. The refrain I often hear now is: 'They're adorable, but what are they?'

I seem to discover a new animal every time I'm there -- this time it was the
African harrier hawk, with its petticoat of rippled blue-grey feathers.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Purple line blues

Should the tube run later at weekends?

Personally, I'm thinking they need to
delete a word from that question.

Paul Fussell

My earlier post on online ratings led me to revisit Paul Fussell's brilliant essay, 'Being Reviewed,' in his collection The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. His wonderful description of the 'Author's Big Mistake' (an angry letter in retaliation for a bad review) reminded me why this book is never far from my side:

He has sent out his book for acclamation. Encountering contempt instead, he has instantly taken pen in hand to right this great wrong. ... Sputtering away, the veins of their foreheads standing out, these little compositions generally deliver the most naked view of the author's wounded vanity. And never with subtlety, for they are conceived in fury and scribbled in haste. ... Rage propels him out to the mailbox, and for the next few weeks rage causes him to tap his foot and with knitted brows to make sudden little sideways movements of his head, incomprehensible to his friends ... . Finally there arrives a copy of the offending periodical, and in it is the author's letter of complaint. Only now it doesn't look the way it looked in the author's typewriter. It's not been altered at all by the editor, or even shortened. But now it reads as if some puling adolescent, cut from the high-school basketball team, has published a letter about how good he really is, and written it not very well. All the author's sarcastic rebuttals now seem both too broad and too lame, inviting the reader to regard him as an even greater ass and loser than before.

(Also of interest is The Onion's story, 'I Can't Believe You Blew My Perfect Feedback Rating.')

Paul Hester 1959-2005

Not exactly cool for a British person of my age to admit to liking Crowded House, of course, but that's never stopped me before. One of the things that's always appealed to me about their later work is the undercurrent of sadness - even their most famous song, 'Weather With You' (which, admittedly, Hester didn't play on the hit version of AFAIK) uses its surface jollity to conceal a portrayal of crippling depression.
Today we learn that the man who in some ways summed up that whole side of the band - the clowning drummer who was driven to quit touring by the black dog - went for a walk in the park and never came home. pays him a nice tribute, as well as reminding us non-Australians what he'd been doing recently.

Terrible timing as well, not that there's ever a good time for this sort of thing, obviously. The
Finn Brothers are back in the charts, and today they re-issue their album with a bonus DVD that includes a live version of 'Weather With You' featuring Hester.

The mysteries of netiquette

After 10+ years on the Internet, it seems I still have some gaps in my knowledge of online protocol. I'd always assumed, for example, that product and seller ratings were there so that a customer could express his/her honest opinion. I've now been told, however, that it's rude to leave less than perfect feedback in an online auction (oh, and that members of the public have no right to leave comments on a blog if the owner has designated it 'personal.') You live, you learn, as they say ...

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Meanwhile, in Bhutan

Just came across this heartening story from a little-known country:

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has unveiled a new constitution that will transform the absolute monarchy into a two-party democratic system.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuk says the draft will be sent to all 530,000 citizens, asking for their views.

The proposed code is the culmination of four years of preparation for democracy.

One of its suggestions is for a national council to govern the country that will be filled by members elected to the national assembly.

The constitution will replace the royal decree of 1953 that gave the king absolute power.

Chief Justice Sonam Tobgye told the BBC that the 49-year-old king wanted all Bhutan's citizens to read the draft and send in their suggestions in good time.

The king told the country's only newspaper Kuensel: "The sovereignty, stability and well-being of the country must be placed above everything else. The country is more important than the king."

Don't DO that!

When I check the news these days, I always prepare myself to learn that John Paul II is no longer with us. So I assumed the worst when I logged on to Google News and saw the headline, 'Next pope is set to be another conservative.'

Turns out it's just speculation before the fact. Mind you, this story does come from The Guardian, whose subs have probably had to scour the book review pages for the past decade to ensure that the paper didn't accidentally run an article about Alexander Ailing Pope.

Who is my neighbour?

The Maryville, Tenn. Daily Times has an interview with Shane Claiborne, founder of the Christian activist community The Simple Way:

``The life I have chosen to live and the message I speak come quite naturally from the God and the people I have grown to love,'' he said. ``Dorothy Day (a Christian activist) said it like this, `Don't call us saints. We don't want to be dismissed that easily.'''

In a nutshell, he said his message is about loving God and your neighbor as yourself.

But that's not always as simple as it sounds.

``Growing up in Maryville, around people who looked like me and thought like me, loving my neighbor was sharing a cup of sugar,'' he said.

But when one looks globally, a neighbor is an Iraqi child, an Indian leper -- even a Muslim cleric.

``It's a beautiful vision but it also disturbs us,'' he said. ``Love disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed.''

At times, Claiborne has shocked and disturbed his audiences.

At times, he has come across as controversial.

``Sure, some chapels have boycotted us, but overwhelmingly what I hear most often is `thank you,''' he said.

``We're no longer the anomaly,'' he said of groups like The Simple Way.

Increasingly, he said, Christians feel out of place with mainstream dialogues.

``A lot of Christians look at the media, and they are no longer convinced that, like, Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton, you know, these people that are on TV, represent the average Christian,'' he said.

Claiborne said in his travels he has noticed some of the divisiveness that shrouded the nation during the last presidential election also shows up in communities of faith.

``Conservatives stand up and thank God that they are not like the homosexuals, the Muslims, the liberals,'' Claiborne said. ``Liberals stand up and thank God that they are not like the warmakers, the yuppies, the conservatives.

``It is a similar self-righteousness, just different definitions of `evil-doing.' Both can paralyze us in judgment and guilt, and rob us of life. There are many people who are morally `pure' but devoid of any life, joy or celebration.

``For some this `purity' may mean that we do not touch anything that is `secular,' or for others it may mean that we do not eat anything that is not `organic.' But if it is not born out of relationships, if it is not liberating for both oppressed and oppressors, if it is not marked by raw, passionate love, then it is the same old self-righteousness that does little more than flaunt our own purity by making the rest of the world see how dirty they are.

``No matter where it pops up, this arrogance hinders us from seeing God's image in every human being, be they a soldier or a centurion, a tax collector or a stockbroker, a zealot or an anarchist. No one is beyond redemption.''


Every Easter I experience a minor miracle. By this point in the liturgical year, the lustre has worn off my faith. I get busy with various projects and forget to pray or read the Bible. My thoughts wander to my own concerns during Mass. When I do think of God, I doubt and fret as much as anyone. I become cynical and flippant about the failings of the church -- both the hierarchy and the people in the pews. There are outside factors too: many people don't see how an educated person could be a Christian in this day and age. Admitting to being a believer can get you lofty bemusement in polite circles, and outright abuse in less polite ones (such as the Internet). Jesus warned that this was a hazard of being his disciple, but that doesn't mean it doesn't take its toll.

At the
Easter Triduum, though, everything changes. I do a lousy job of preparing myself -- sometimes I don't even think of it till the evening of Holy Thursday rolls around and I realise it's time to leave for Mass. But then I get through the door and feel myself gathered up in God's arms. During these three services, on these three days, I experience perfect faith and peace.

When our hearts are wintry,
grieving or in pain,
thy touch can call us
back to life again.
Fields of our hearts
that dead and bare have been -
Love is come again,
like wheat that springeth green.

This Easter marks four years since I was baptised. Each time I can approach the festival with a bit more knowledge, both from my course and from personal experience. This year, as we read the Scripture passages for the Easter vigil -- from the sacrifice of Isaac and the drowning of the Egyptians, to Christ's triumph over violence and death -- I found myself thinking of the theories of René Girard. Which led me to discover this fantastic site. I know I'll be using this a lot in the year to come.

A joyous and blessed Easter to you all!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Revolution in the Summertime?

Still difficult to know what's happening in Kyrgyzstan at the moment. Hard to tell even who's running the place now, or whether we'll get a positive outcome. Hard as it is not to enjoy the thought of Putin squirming, I always have reservations about violence of any kind. I've had a quick glance at the
BBC comments page and I have to confess a certian national pride that people from so far afield would even think to contact a British news organisation.

Of course, there's always one person (in this case, one Youri Lysogorov) who'll bleat that "The elections were as fair as it is possible in this part of the world. And I mean you cannot expect more democracy at the moment." I wonder whether he's the Yuri Lysogorov whom Google identifies as a member of the Kyrgyz government. Maybe it's a coincidence though; there seem to be enough people prepared to consider democracy as an optional extra for the former Soviet world.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Did I Really Hear That? II

It's always an odd experience waking up to the Today Programme, isn't it?
Yesterday I had to go onto the internet, because I couldn't quite believe that I'd heard them say the BBC were playing down reports about the Director General biting someone's arm. And yet, sure enough,
there it was. I suppose it would have been an even better story if he'd been bitten by the head of one of the departments that got shut down last week.

BTW, I suppose it's a sign of the times that Paula Abdul's motoring conviction is now listed as a "TV & Radio" story rather than a "Music" one.

I'm a star!

From TCAEP I learn that there's a star in the constellation of Columba called del Col -- my maiden name, or near enough (we capitalise the 'Del'). Sadly, this appears to stand for 'delta Columba' and has nothing to do with my ancestors from Praturlone. Still, at least I'll never have to use one of those bogus 'star registries.'

Thursday, March 24, 2005

1 Corinthians 11:23-24

I'm always moved when I hear this passage on Holy Thursday.

(Apologies for the incorrect accents and lack of breathings; as far as I can work out, I can only do Modern Greek characters in Unicode.)

... ο κύριος ιησούς εν τή νυκτί ή παρεδίδετο έλαβεν άρτον καί ευχαριστήσας έκλασεν καί είπεν· τούτό μού έστιν τό σώμα ...

... The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread and, having given thanks, broke into pieces and said: 'This is my body ...'

(my tr.)

Volcanoes of the Deep Sea

Please go see this documentary if at all possible, and buy the DVD when it comes out. Partly because it's meant to be very good (I haven't seen it yet myself - it doesn't appear to have come to Britain), but mainly because if it doesn't turn a profit, these people will have won.

Human trafficking?

My Google alerts turned up this story from a Finnish newspaper:

A group of 48 Georgian women who arrived in Finland by bus from Russia last week were flown to the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Tuesday. Also taking the Finnair chartered flight were two men - an interpreter and the women’s tour leader.
The plane carrying the group left Lappeenranta Airport at noon on Tuesday.
The two bus drivers, who had Russian visas, crossed back into Russia on Sunday. The women would also have preferred to go through Russia, but Russia would not grant them visas for the journey.

The Georgians were stopped at the Vaalimaa border crossing on Tuesday last week on suspicion that the trip might involve trafficking in humans.
The members of the group had Schengen visas granted by the Swedish Embassy in Moscow, and the leader of the group said that the plan was to go via Central Europe to Italy and Greece, and from there through Turkey back to Georgia.
Border officials noted that the tour fit the profile of suspected systematic human smuggling that Greek officials had noted in November. It was reported that busloads of women had been arriving in the EU via Vaalimaa, and that the buses had left via Greece with only two or three people on board. A total of 1,500 women on 30 buses are believed to have arrived in the EU in this manner.

Finnish officials said that the women did not know the exact route that they were supposed to take, and that some of them had inadequate funds, considering the length of the trip.
The women were seen as victims of human trafficking, whereas the men were interrogated as suspects.

The Georgian women have complained that their reputations have been ruined by the whole affair.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


London Zoo opened their new squirrel monkey enclosure yesterday. The team on Chris Moyles's breakfast show adopted a monkey to promote it. I've adopted an animal there myself (a potto, of course!) and highly recommend it.

And they all moved away from me

Shortly after arriving in London, I noticed a difference between British and American manners that no one has been able to explain to me. When Americans are sitting on bench-style seating and a newcomer approaches, everyone on the bench will scoot down to make room. In Britain, however, the first person to arrive claims the end of the bench and won't give it up for anything. They may shift their knees slightly to let others get past them, but that's it.

I first observed this on the Metropolitan Line, where it at least makes a certain amount of sense: people want to get off quickly at their stop. This doesn't explain, however, why the same behaviour occurs on church pews. Unless you arrive very early indeed, you'll probably start your worship by clambering over the shoes of an unsmiling fellow parishioner -- tricky if the kneeler is already down. Now, strictly speaking, you're not supposed to want a quick getaway from church, or at least you're not supposed to show it. Besides, it won't work, because dozens of other people have the same idea and clog up the aisle. So why do it?

I have to confess that when I'm sitting on the end, I still insist on moving down for newcomers and forcing everyone next to me to do the same -- the surprise on their faces provides much-needed entertainment during a dull Mass.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Quote of the day

Garry Kasparov on Putin and the West:

Bush said, ‘I have looked into his soul’; don’t look at his soul, look at his record.”

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Pillow worlds

It took me a stupidly long time to realise that the British Museum is just down the street from my Hebrew class, and open late on the relevant evening. One of the best things about living in London is that the major museums are free and you can pop in for a few minutes any time you like. Often in those few moments you can find something that will transform your day.

Last week I was browsing in the Asian rooms and was struck by something particularly charming -- a ceramic pillow from the Tang Dynasty whose base was carved into a scene from Shen Jiji's tale 'The Pillow.' (I have found different translations of the title -- the Chinese seems to be Zhen Zhong Ji, or 枕中記. Likewise, the author's name gets spelled in different ways, but the Chinese characters are 沈既濟.) This is the story of a man who dreams an entire life, in which he becomes the ruler of a strange kingdom. According to, the tale is the source of a Chinese idiom still used today:

Golden millet dream (黄粱美梦)—dream full of fantasy.

The allusion comes from a romance entitled Stories Telling on the Pil-lows by Shen Jiji in the Tang Dynasty.

"Once there was a boy named Lu Sheng. Although born in a poor fami-ly, he yearned all day long for fame, property and ranks of a general or a min-ister. One day when he lodged in an inn in Handan , he encountered a Taoist priest, who gave him a porcelain pillow. Lu Sheng fell into asleep and dreamt as soon as he laid his head on the porcelain pillow, while the innkeeper was cooking his sorghum food. In his dream Lu Sheng married the daughter of a rich man, took up a post of minister; he finally had a large number of children and grandchildren and lived in a luxurious and majestic life. When he woke up from his dream, the innkeeper had not even made his golden millet food ready. "

Later the story is meant to satirize the nullity of fantasies and unfeasible hope. Another phrase is "golden dreams on the porcelain pillow. "

(黄粱美梦 is apparently pronounced something like 'huang liang yi meng.')

The label in the museum said that the ancient Chinese viewed pillows as the gateway to dreams and decorated them accordingly.

I may well have missed the point entirely, but I immediately began imagining how it would be if we in the West embroidered our pillowcases with the subjects of our dreams. If I had any artistic ability, I'd do it myself.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Music as disinfectant

A few weeks ago David McDuff posted about businesses that pipe in classical music to drive away yobs. Shortly afterwards, the bus station that I walk through on my way to work adopted this very approach, interspersing The Four Seasons and other Classic FM favourites with warnings about antisocial behaviour.

The interesting thing is that it seems to be working: the station was the area's epicentre for fights, drug deals, graffiti and firecrackers, but has become much calmer and more pleasant since the music started. Some observers have pointed out that the use of art as a deterrent raises troubling questions about our culture. This may be true, but for the moment I'm just pleased to have a cheap and peaceful solution to the station's problems.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

He's got the whole world ...

For some reason, I keep forgetting that not all Catholics joined the church after reading Dorothy Day. Some part of me remains convinced that even the most purse-lipped churchgoer will, with slight encouragement, become a fiery crusader for justice. Thus it was that I decided to have the latest Volodymyr Campaign demonstration outside Westminster Cathedral on a Sunday.

It turned out to be one of our worst pitches ever. We collected just two signatures in support of Marinich, and one was from a Big Issue vendor who happened to be working the area. One cathedral-goer lectured us for going out and 'making trouble for the police' (well, one of the local bobbies did slow down briefly to read our sign), instead of staying inside and praying to God to make everything better.

The day was not entirely wasted, however, because I saw someone walking out of the cathedral gift shop with a piece of pious tat that not even
Ship of Fools has discovered: a fully functional globe with a six-inch figurine of Jesus on top. I know the point is supposed to be that Jesus rules over the world, but it looked more like he'd evicted Santa Claus from the North Pole in a bid to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas. In which case he's going to wish he hadn't worn sandals.

Satire on the catwalk

The Economist's latest letter from Milan reports:

Milan’s latest fashion week ended on February 26th with a hoax: a show by Serpica Naro, a supposedly up-and-coming Anglo-Japanese designer, who turned out to not exist. Serpica Naro got a place on the event's official calendar with the help of a website dedicated to his (actually, her -- L.B.) creations, complete with a press office and fictitious showroom locations.

Just before the show was scheduled to begin, organisers revealed that Serpica Naro was really an anagram for San Precario, or Saint Precarious, the mythical patron saint of those with temporary, part-time or other uncertain employment. Models then paraded outfits that played on employment issues, such as dresses that would hide pregnancy and pyjamas disguised as proper outfits.

There's an article in La Repubblica for those who read Italian (I don't), and the website of Chainworkers, the group behind the hoax, is here.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Mikhail Marinich

At the moment, I'm devoting most of my energy to the cause of the Belarusian political prisoner Mikhail Marinich. Marinich suffered a stroke in prison last week and is reportedly not being given adequate treatment or permitted to see his family. Please help.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

New Random Single post

The Wild Things by Ben & Jason. The difficult part about writing these things is keeping my attention focussed and not listening to other stuff instead.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Maskhadov killing

Aslan Maskhadov, leader of the Chechen rebels, was killed by Russian forces on Tuesday. (To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, this took place during Michael Jackson's trial, so your local media may not have covered it.)

The Economist has an analysis of the situation:

Though Russia had branded him a terrorist, Mr Maskhadov was one of the more conciliatory voices in Chechnya’s rebel camp. A former colonel in the Soviet army, he added his weight to the Chechen independence movement in the early 1990s. He was at the forefront of peace talks with Moscow in 1996, in the wake of an invasion of Chechnya by Russian troops, and his pragmatism was said to have impressed Russian negotiators. He was democratically elected as Chechen president in 1997, partly on his war record but also because he was less radical than his opponents and thus offered a better chance of ending the conflict. But Chechnya splintered on his watch, with warlords taking control of much of the republic, and he became increasingly powerless. After Russian troops went in again in 1999, Mr Maskhadov took control of the rebel forces. However, he often invited Mr Putin to hold talks with him, saying a peaceful solution to the conflict could be worked out in a matter of minutes. The Russian leader refused, saying he did not talk to terrorists.

The next leader of the Chechen resistance is unlikely to be as willing as Mr Maskhadov to hold out olive branches. One strong contender is Shamil Basayev, a ruthless guerrilla warlord. Unlike Mr Maskhadov, the 40-year-old Mr Basayev believes Russian civilians, including children, are legitimate targets: “Russians are accomplices in this war. It is just that they don’t all have weapons in their hands,” he told Britain’s Channel 4 television in an interview last month.

Mr Basayev was probably behind the bombing of a Moscow metro station in February last year, which killed around 40. And he has masterminded numerous raids and sieges, including the hostage-taking at a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan last September, in which more than 320 died, half of them children, after Russian special forces stormed the building. The Russian authorities also linked Mr Maskhadov to the Beslan siege, though he publicly denied involvement and said that Mr Basayev should go on trial for the massacre after the conflict was over.

A devout Muslim, Mr Basayev is said to be more interested in spreading militant Islam than in winning independence for Chechnya. Were he to take over as Chechnya’s rebel leader, it could play into the hands of Mr Putin, who has sought to define the conflict as his very own war on international Islamist terrorism—despite Russia’s terror problem in fact being overwhelmingly home-grown.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Hymn to the postal service

In America, it's a cliché for people to joke about the alleged poor quality of the postal service. After living in Britain for five years, I have no idea why. If Americans spent a few months being served by Royal Mail, they would never complain about USPS again.

In my 25 years in America, I can recall having the following problems with my mail delivery:

  • A few times, the cover of a magazine got shredded when the mail carrier forced it into the mailbox. (Most Americans have a mailbox outside their house, instead of a mail slot in their door).
  • Very occasionally I got some of the neighbours' post in my box, or they got mine in theirs. This probably happened fewer than ten times.

And that's it. In addition, the U.S. post office has a few annoying characteristics:

  • It doesn't guarantee to deliver domestic mail within a particular time -- how long your letter takes to reach its destination depends on how far away you send it, how busy the post office is, etc.
  • There are also no guarantees about what time of day your post will be delivered. Often you can guess, but the time can change if you get a new mail carrier. My parents get their post anytime between 11 and 4.
  • The post isn't delivered on minor federal holidays that aren't days off for most people.
  • The USPS charges extra to deliver envelopes that are a funny shape.

Compare this with the experience I've had since moving to Britain:

  • Items of post constantly go missing. We get two weekly magazines and one biweekly, and at least one of them is sure to vanish at least once every couple of months. Other things that have got lost include airline tickets, a renewed lease for our flat, and credit cards. (Fortunately, the last only went next door and the neighbours were honest enough to return them).
  • The envelope from the Home Office containing my passport and permanent visa, which I was supposed to sign for personally, was instead dumped through our door with the rest of the post.
  • At our old flat, the postman routinely left parcels outside to be rained on and/or nicked, and to attract burglars. When we left a note asking him not to do this, he scrawled 'MAKE BIGGER LETTER BOX.'
  • Another postman always left a note and returned the parcel to the depot without bothering to check whether we were home to receive it or not. This seems to be a widespread practice, even though postmen are supposed to ring the doorbell first.
  • We always have to ask at least twice to get parcels redelivered, since they seem to ignore the first request. Chris once left work early to collect a parcel that was supposed to be redelivered to our local post office, only to find it wasn't there. He rang the helpline to be told that the parcel was 'too big for a branch post office' and he would have to have it delivered somewhere else.
  • About once a week we get mail clearly marked with our neighbours' address.
  • We have received mail for previous residents, marked it 'Not at this address' and returned it -- only to have it delivered again a few days later.
  • Most recently, my mother sent Chris a parcel via Amazon. Although it was correctly addressed, Royal Mail returned it as undeliverable. We can only assume that the postman either put a note through the wrong door or didn't bother to leave one at all.

If you ring Royal Mail's helpline, things only get worse. I can't compare it with the American helpline because I never had cause to ring the latter, but here are some of the delights the British version has to offer:

  • Being told that we can't reasonably expect our mail to be delivered properly because we live in a flat above a shop.
  • Being told that it's no wonder mail gets delivered to the wrong address, when there are all those houses around us whose numbers differ from ours by just one digit.
  • Being told that they can't take the problem up with the person who's causing it (i.e., the mail carrier who can't match the number on the envelope with the number on the door) but can only report it to the local sorting office and hope the information trickles down to the right person eventually.
  • If you want to get a parcel redelivered, you have to talk to an automated system that either doesn't understand your accent, doesn't recognise your address or claims your local post office doesn't exist.
  • Talking to a real person doesn't get you much further, as the call centre is clearly not outsourced to India and is staffed by surly young Britons who took elocution lessons from Ali G.

Other irritating things about Royal Mail are:

  • It's pointlessly broken up into three branches -- Royal Mail itself (formerly Consignia), Parcelforce and Post Offices Ltd -- none of which is capable of talking to the others.
  • Their website makes you register a username and password to look up postcodes, even though these are public information and it's in Royal Mail's own interest for you to use the correct one.
  • However much I scheme or plead, I can never persuade post office clerks to sell me a whole sheet of air mail stamps so I can send letters to America without having to queue up at the post office each time.
  • Their postmarks carry advertising.
  • Their stamps are boring.

Thank heaven for e-mail.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Reading: David Attenborough

I wouldn't touch most celebrity autobiographies, but I made an exception for Life on Air. Ever since we got a computer with a DVD drive, we've been working our way through his documentaries. I figured he'd be an exception among celeb writers for the same reason he's an exception among TV presenters: he never makes the mistake of thinking that he's the point of the enterprise. Put Davina McCall or Dermot O'Leary in a chair lift to the top of the rain forest, and the theme of the programme would be: 'I Go Up in a Giant Chair Lift.' When Attenborough did it for The Life of Mammals, he didn't dwell on his personal experience. Of course he went to the top of the rain forest; that was where the animals were.

Life on Air is written with the same philosophy. Attenborough tells us very little about his personal life. Except for the last chapter, where he movingly describes his wife's death, he mentions his family only when they come into contact with his work. Similarly, his childhood memories are restricted to his early years in fossil collecting. Most of the book is not so much about him as about the places he's been and the people he's met on his journeys.

And they are truly astonishing journeys. Attenborough has been to most parts of the world, and he started long before tourism became a global industry. He's played (famously) with mountain gorillas and watched a three-toed sloth give birth. He's sailed to Komodo in a gale, with a fugitive at the helm and no map. He's spent hours persuading a flying snake in Borneo to perform for the cameras. He's met a tribe in New Guinea who had never seen white men before, and a colonial officer in Sierra Leone whose sole interest was in model trains. More mundanely, he's been working in British television almost since it began, and describes how broadcast techniques and programming evolved. He keeps up the momentum of his stories and lets the reader share the excitement of his discoveries. With the mark of an accomplished television writer, he uses striking visual descriptions and rounds sections off with a neat summary and setup for the next part.

Only twice in this book does Attenborough have really negative things to say about people. The first time is when he describes his stay in
Joy and George Adamson's camp, where 'violence lay beneath the surface wherever we looked.' The second is when he recounts his run-ins with the odious A.N. Wilson, who accused him of having faked scenes in his documentaries. You have to admire a man who got a 'grovelling retraction' out of Wilson -- twice. The second time he was also paid damages. He gave the money to a wildlife fund, of course.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Radio Faynights

Ok, not exactly but we've set up an
online station at Launchcast. As far as possible, this is based on the music we actually own, not necessarily the stuff we recommend, though you may be pleased to know that they haven't got as many Shed Seven records as I. The bulk of it is in there, from the extremely cool records we never listen to right through to the deperately uncool ones I love. I've also attempted to take some account of both mine and Laura's opinions - although I haven't felt able to turn off any of the records we own, and even went so far as to get rid of a couple of them. Anybody want a vinyl copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road?

Unfortunately, if you're not a "premium user" (which we are; it's one of the things I do like about using BT as an ISP) then you'll have to sit through adverts which are every bit as good as offline radio ads, but with the added advantage that unless you live in the USA you couldn't buy most of the products even if you wanted to. The advantage of online radio is that there's a little time display, so you know exactly how long to switch your speakers off for.

It was an entertaining little exercise for me to rate all the tracks, and shut off all the people whose records we don't own, even if it was slightly painful to remind myself that there are so many frankly inexcusable gaps.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Pedro Casaldáliga

The new issue of Far East, the magazine of the Columban missionaries, has an interview with Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, former bishop of São Félix in Brazil.

What has caused me most fear has been my own impotence. In the face of the injustice of the landowners, the massacre of the Indians and peasants, the inertia of the government, I was oppressed by my own impotence and by the fear of falling into depression. As for losing my own life in a violent fashion, I had no fear of that. We were idealists; we had taken on a cause that we believed was just, and it didn't matter whether we were assassinated.

I have felt close to death on many occasions. I would say it has been my life's companion. In Latin America those who work for social justice and defence of the oppressed are accustomed to martyrdom. They were capable of dying because they were first capable of giving life. For me, death is only the resurrection: why should I be afraid to die?

To those who ask if I have temptations against chastity, my answer is, 'I'm still alive.' I think that obligatory celibacy is absurd and unjust. I would like the next pope to abolish it because that option only has value, and above all is only credible, if it is free. Celibacy is always a violence, even when it is free and desired.

If celibacy were a free option then married people could enter the priesthood. To say that celibacy is superior to marriage is just bad theology. I accepted to live my celibacy with love, while being conscious that it goes against our natural tendencies. Celibacy is only a worthwhile renunciation if it is embraced for a cause. And be careful, it is difficult to live it alone, without the help of a community. But if somebody says to me that it is against celibacy to kiss a woman or to embrace a child, then they are asking something contrary to nature. Celibacy never eliminates human love; it is a way of loving.