Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The glory is departed

Boarzell School in Sussex where Mr Dumbreck taught me English in 1961

I had a terrific English teacher when I was 12 called Mr Dumbreck and were he here today he would strike a big red pencil through that word “terrific”, on the grounds of being a cliché, and furthermore terrific means inducing terror. Another rule for our English compositions was that no sentence was to begin either with the word “it” or the word “suddenly”.

I want to tell you about my swotty boy moment. One day the word “hectic” cropped up and Mr Dumbreck asked us for examples of how it might be used. Up I piped with “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red”, a line from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, which we had recently been reading in class. Mr Dumbreck heaped praise on me for quoting both correctly and appositely, and even after all these years the memory calls up a glow of satisfaction. Lindsay by the bye tells me that at her school quoting Shelley wasn't considered comme il faut, and would quite likely have earnt me a whack on the back of the head with a pencil box.

Mr Dumbreck and the Fifth Form room. The events related here took place in the Sixth Form room next door, but no photo is available.  
All photos courtesy of Michael Salmony

Whenever I think of Mr Dumbreck the phrase “Ichabod, the glory is departed” comes to mind. It's an essay he read to us about a hat box festooned with luggage labels. You have to be as old as I am to remember what this meant. The hat box is sent away for a lock repair and when it comes back it's been steam cleaned, and the lovingly preserved collection of labels has vanished. I've gone looking for this essay, which turns out to be by Max Beerbohm, and after fifty-four years I've just read it again. I see the title is simply “Ichabod”, the phrase “the glory is departed” occuring only at the very end. I imagine Mr Dumbreck read us this verse from the Old Testament: “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband.” He was a brilliant teacher. He taught us art too. We weren't allowed erasers, and had to ask to borrow his bungy. This was occasionally permitted but normally he would claim to have lost it.

It's hard to say why I've started reminiscing about Mr Dumbreck. My age you will say. But I think I can trace it back four years when I read PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley and was startled to come across this sentence: “Suddenly Mrs Reynolds was with them.” Proof that PD James had not attended Mr Dumbreck’s lessons, and considering that she was writing a Jane Austen sequel, very bad; for Austen, though she used the word “suddenly” about 50 times in her novels, never once began a sentence with it. I know this because I have the internet. Mr Dumbreck knew it in his bones.

Finally, in a couple of hours we in Cork Astronomy Club will celebrate the centennial of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which prompts me to ponder the relativity of time. From leaving Boarzell in 1961, to 1972 the year my mother died and I moved to York, was 11 years, and appears to me like half a lifetime. From leaving York to now is nearly 11 years, and it seems like yesterday.

Note 1 : For a read-out of every sentence in which Jane Austen used the word “suddenly”, all you need is this website and about eight seconds of your time. Charles Dickens had no such compunction by the way. I found the following instances in David Copperfield, and I suspect, had I continued searching, would have found many more:-
“Suddenly I came upon a pasteboard placard, beautifully written, which was lying on the desk …” Chap 5
“Suddenly Miss Murdstone gave such a scream that I all but dropped it.” Chap 8
“Suddenly there passed us ─ evidently following them ─ a young woman …” Chap 22

Note 2: The Biblical quotation is 1 Samuel 4:21 in King James version.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Flags, Paris, ISIS - a few thoughts

This post is far from a considered essay I'm afraid, more a stream of consciousness. I'll start with French and Irish tricoleurs on a rain soaked street in Cork this afternoon.  And an image going the rounds on Facebook of the Malian flag, where French flags have sprung up adorning many users’ pages. These flags have been called forth by an ISIS atrocity in Paris ten days ago, on 13th November, which has dominated the international news. Unlike a similar one in Mali on the 21st, which gave rise to no flags on Facebook.  Bombings in Beirut on 12 November, likewise attracted little coverage.

The Guardian’s readers editor, reflecting today on his own paper’s recent opinion pages, made an arresting point about when is the right time to express certain views: “The idea that these horrific attacks have causes and that one of those causes may be the west’s policies is something that in the immediate aftermath might inspire anger. Three days later, it’s a point of view that should be heard.” 

He also responded to a complaint that when the Paris story first broke on Friday 13th, the Guardian website didn't immediately open it for comments. This was because there were very few moderators available and, regrettably, a considerable number of people wanted to leave Islamophobic comments, alongside the many others who wanted to engage in legitimate debate.

If it's Islamophobia you want, look no further than today’s Sun, a tabloid with the highest circulation in the UK. 

Demolished in The Guardian
by Miqdaad Versi for being  irresponsible, dangerous and grossly misleading. As many commentators have pointed out, the Sun story is precisely what ISIS in their black and white world want.

An interview on RTÉ radio made a big impression on me, if I have time later I'll find the link. A French senator, from the socialist party I infer, defended  the French response to the Paris attack, namely to step up bombing of ISIS positions. She also welcomed a UN security council resolution backing “all necessary measures” to prevent and suppress ISIS terrorist acts on territory under its control.

So far, all according to script. Until at the very end, when the radio presenter asked her about the upcoming French elections, and would the Front National be making gains? Then we got her authentic voice: “I'm scared, I'm really scared” she said, of the right wing backlash that might arise from these attacks.

I see that I confidently asserted just now that I know what ISIS wants, and it occurs to me that I actually know no such thing. I've read  “7 things I learned reading every issue of ISIS's magazine” by one Robert Evans on a website called Cracked. Now I know nothing of Evans nor his website, but find I'm reduced to trawling around the internet for any scraps of insight I can gather, and this just may be worth a read. ISIS it seems has a glossy magazine that Evans has studied at length.  Amongst other things,  the primary target of their hatred is not the United States,  France or Russia; the one "enemy" they devote more time to ranting against than anyone else is the "apostate Muslims", who form the vast majority of their victims. I suppose we knew that already, but in the last week it's all been hidden by events in Paris.

Most propaganda makes enemies appear ugly and brutal, whilst portraying one's own side as shining and blameless, says Evans. But the Islamic State does not do this. And “their fawning ads about various jihadis don't show only happy pictures ... they almost always include a picture of the man's corpse.”

President Holland reacted immediately to the Paris outrages by announcing a new bombing campaign.  Isn't this just revenge, and demeaning to France? Treading in the footsteps of George W Bush and Tony Blair and their war on terror.  You can't make war on an idea, only on a state. ISIS likes to call itself a state and now they’ve all declared war on it, so it is one.  The war ISIS wants, according to Scott Atran on the New York Review of Books website.

Atran's article also touches on a question that bothers me and probably you, the horrific, seemingly senseless, violence that ISIS followers engage in.  But to them it's a deeply purposeful part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation.  This finding is based, he says, on interviews with youth in Western cities as well as with captured ISIS fighters in the Middle East.

Or is this all wrong, and are they deranged and pathetic?

When it became known ten days ago that the Islamic State militant known as "Jihadi John" had been killed by a US drone, the mother of American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded last year in Syria, said she felt no solace in the killing.  "It saddens me that here in America we're celebrating the killing of this deranged, pathetic young man," Diane Foley says in an ABC video. "Jim would have been devastated with the whole thing. He was a peacemaker. He wanted to know how we could figure out why all this was happening."

Just disjointed thoughts really, and not up to my usual standard, but I hope you find some of the links useful. I'll finish with one more, from the Guardian website again, yesterday. Why do Islamist groups in particular seem so much more sadistic, even evil, asks Kenan Malik. Amongst his answers he suggest that over the past few decades anti-imperialist traditions based on Marxism and other leftwing perspectives have unravelled, leaving political rage against the West nothing but nihilistic, barbaric forms.

As a postscript here are two more links that have been
recommended to me by Dave and Stevey

(1) This article, and its part 2, covers the history of ISIS.  Huffington Post: “You can't understand ISIS if you don't know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia”

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths, but a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, amongst them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.