I am a person…The story of Gertrude Bell

If you think of those early years of Arab nationalism and middle-east peace settlements, you might think of Sykes/Piquot, possibly of Lawrence and his disillusion when wartime promises to Arab leaders were disavowed after the war.

Before tonight though, I wouldn’t have thought of Gertrude Bell.

I knew she was around the Middle East at the time, but in my mind I had her down as one of that tribe of English gentlewomen, dressed improbably in full Edwardian splendour, who spent their lives in foreign parts, writing the occasional travel book.

Yet Bell was a much more significant figure than that. She was a true adventurer, exploring parts of the Arab world where almost no European had been before. She became expert in language, customs and tribal relations before the first world war and was then able to offer insights and strategic advice to soldiers and statesmen both while the fighting was going on and through the post war settlements.

She was Al-Khatun – the woman who advises the ruler. She was pretty much the architect of the new country of Iraq, fighting for the right of Arabs to govern the new state.

Her story is told vividly in a recent documentary C and I watched last night, called Letters From Baghdad. Based on letters and reports, some of them secret, it revealed a clever, warm and passionate woman who was able to face down so much official (and male) resistance to the very idea of a woman playing any sort of role in politics. The mix of modern and archive footage managed to give a real immediacy to the story. Here’s the trailer:




The credits are fascinating too – the film has clearly been funded and made on a very different model to most. Lists of supporters – almost all of them women – scroll past and, if you go to the film’s website, you can see that it is the first fruit of a project to make different a sort of film. Worth exploring in its own right. 

The website is here.

I am a person…The story of Gertrude Bell

Wealth mountains and what they are worth

There was a headline in the Guardian last week that read:

Old People due to pass on property ‘wealth mountain’ worth 400bn

When you read the article you realise at once that it could – more accurately but less sensationally – have read:

‘Old people hope to leave their homes to their children or grandchildren.’

You could have added as a strapline ‘If care costs don’t mean everything is spent before they die’.

It’s horrible the way that the language of economics and accountancy sets the agenda for us now.

Horrible too the way that headlines like this seem designed (even in otherwise thoughtful newspapers) to emphasise the division between old and young as the new ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

All that will happen is that both groups are made more miserable about themselves and more distrustful of each other.

What these pieces never do is ask why the difference is there. If, as a nation, we are  so much wealthier that we were 50 years ago, why most people are poorer? Why bull markets and successful companies mean unaffordable pensions? Why decent wages are hard to come by? Why public services are so diminished?

Far easier – as always – to set people against each other and let them squabble over crumbs, while the real wealth remains unremarked and untouched.


Wealth mountains and what they are worth

On being laconic

The Spartans of course were masters of the laconic – the area they lived in gave us the word. Wikipedia quotes this example of antique pithiness:

Philip II of Macedon, after invading southern Greece and receiving the submission of other key city-states, sent a message to Sparta:

You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.[3]

The Spartan ephors replied with a single word: ‘If’

Philip didn’t proceed with the invasion.

Haikus are laconic. This one – posted in the Quartz Daily briefing today – describing Trump’s tax plans appealed to me strongly:

For everyone. And a lot
For the very rich.

I thought it could just as easily form the strapline for the Tory party manifesto here in the UK.

On being laconic

RIP Robert Pirsig

It’s hard to claim much sadness for the death of a person you never met and haven’t thought about for many years, but reading about Robert Pirsig’s death yesterday (at the grand age of 88) did give me pause.

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the mid seventies, not long after it came out. It thrilled me. I was completely caught up in Phaedrus’ inner journey, and although I still have no sense of the academic worth of the ideas Pirsig’s hero lives through – I’m no philosopher – they hit me like a bombshell.

I was 20 or so when I read it, trying to work out what to do with my life and what to make of the tail end of all that sixties idealism I’d grown up with.

ZAMM made sense to me. It seemed to express – in a more coherent and structured way than anything I had read before – the  spirit of those years.

Pirsig’s emphasis on quality, his challenge to the value-free subject/ object duality that was driving the materialism of western culture seemed – seems – essential. I never forgot it – it simply became part of the way I looked at the world.

That’s why, when I read the news last night, not having thought about him for many, many years, I raised my hat to him – in respect and thanks – and wished him well on his next road trip, perhaps – who knows – with his son Chris again.

RIP Robert Pirsig

This Is a Prayer to Baba Yaga. This Is a Prayer for Resistance

A friend posted a link to this on Facebook – I thought the poem was much too good to lose amongst FBs wretched algorithms.

Baba Yaga, the crone, a figure beyond the expectations and demands of society, reminds us of the freedom we have, and the power if we choose to exercise it.


Baba Yaga

This is a prayer for Baba Yaga.  This is a prayer for Resistance.

This is a prayer for the magic of chicken feet, the heat of old hates, the way old bones hurt.  This is a prayer for Resistance.

This is a prayer for hat knitters, sign-carriers, Congress-callers.  Old women make up the Resistance.

This is a prayer for casserole-bakers, newsletter-writers, nuisances.  Old women make up the Resistance.

This is a prayer for phone-bankers, neighborhood-canvassers, early-voters.  Old women make up the Resistance.

When the Moon is full, I call to Her.

I bring coals for Her oven.  I bring flour, to cover Her tracks.  I bring paprika salve for Her old, sore joints.

I bring a list of complicit women.  I bring a doll poked with pins and bound with vines.  I bring a bottle of ancient anger.

“Come, Baba Yaga,” I say. “Come find me alone in the woods.”

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This Is a Prayer to Baba Yaga. This Is a Prayer for Resistance

A Brash of Wowing

Dunbar again, anticipating the modern day modern day hipster with his ‘bony berd was kemmit and croppit’, trying to sweet talk his girl.

The compliments are wonderful:

My belly-huddrun, my swete hurle bawsy,
My huny gukkis, my slawsy gawsy,

Read on to see if our charmer wins his ‘tendir gyrle’s’ heart.

A Brash of Wowing

In secreit place this hyndir nycht,
I hard ane beyrne say till ane bricht,
‘My huny, my hart, my hoip, my heill,
I have bene lang your luifar leill
And can of yow get confort nane;
How lang will ye with denger deill?
Ye brek my hart, my bony ane!’

His bony berd was kemmit and croppit,
Bot all with cale it was bedroppit;
And he wes townysche, peirt and gukit,
He clappit fast, he kist and chukkit
As with the glaikis he wer ouirgane;
Yit be his feirris he wald have fukkit;
‘Ye brek my hart, my bony ane!’

Quod he, ‘My hairt, sweit as the hunye,
Sen that I borne wes of my mynnye,
I never wowit ane uder bot yow;
My wambe is of your luif sa fow,
That as ane gaist I glour and grane,
I trymble sa, ye will nocht trow;
Ye brek my hart, my bony ane!’

‘Tehe!’ quod scho, and gaif ane gawfe,
‘Be still my tuchan and my calfe,
My new spanit howffling fra the sowk,
And all the blythnes of my bowk;
My sweit swanking, saif yow allane,
Na leyd I luffit all this owk;
Full leifis me your graceless gane.’

Quod he, ‘My claver, my curledodie,
My huny soppis, my sweit possodie,
Be not our bosteous to your billie,
Be warme hairtit and not ewill willie;
Your hals, quhyt as quhalis bane,
Garris ryis on loft my quhillielillie:
Ye brek my hart, my bony ane!’

Quod scho, ‘My clype my unspaynit gyane,
With moderis mylk yit in your mychane,
My belly-huddrun, my swete hurle bawsy,
My huny gukkis, my slawsy gawsy,
Your musing waild perse ane hairt of stane,
Tak gud confort, my grit heidit slawsy:
Full leifis me your graceles gane.’

Quod he, ‘My kid, my capirculyoun,
My bony baib with the ruch brilyoun,
My tendir gyrle, my wallie gowdye,
My tirlie mirlie, my crowdie mowdie;
Quhone that oure mouthis dois meit at ane,
My stang dois storkyn with your towdy:
Ye brek my hart, my bony ane.’

Quod scho, ‘Now tak me be the hand,
Welcum, my golk of Marie land,
My chirrie, and my maikles munyoun,
My sowklar sweit as ony unyoun,
My strwmill stirk, yit new to spane,
I am applyit to your opunyoun:
I luif rycht weill your graceles gane.’

He gaiff to hir ane apill rubye;
Quod scho ‘Grammercye,my sweit cowhubye.’
And thai twa to ane play began,
Quhilk men dois call the dery dan;
Quhill bayth thair bewis did meit in ane.
‘Wo is me!’ quod scho, ‘quhair will ye, man?
Best now I luif that graceles gane.’
William Dunbar

hyndir, recent; beyrne, fellow; bricht, pretty girl; cale, cabbage soup; townysche, cheaply smart; gukit, foolish; clappit, fondled; chukkit, chucked under the chin; glaikis, desire; feirris, behaviour; wambe, belly; fow, full; gawfe, guffaw; tuchan, stuffed calf-skin; spanit, weaned; howffling, stupid fellow; sowk, milk; bowk, body; swanking, smart young fellow; leyd, person; owk, week; leifis me, is dear to me; gane, ugly mug; claver, clover; curldodie, ribwort plantain; possodie, sheep’s head broth; billie, lover; ewill willie, unkind; quhillielillie, penis; clype, silly fellow; unspaynit, unweaned; gyane, giant; mychane, mouth; huddrun, glutton; hurle bawsy, obscure term of endearment; huny gukkis, sweet fool; slawsy gawsy, jolly sloven; capirculyoun, woodgrouse; ruch brylyoun, hairy private parts; wallie, fine; gowdye, piece of gold; tyrlie myrlie, crowdie mowdie, obscure (and probably obscene) terms of endearment; stang, penis; towdie, buttocks; golk, cuckoo; maikles munyoun, matchless darling; sowklar, sucking child; unyoun, onion; strwmill stirk, ugly young bullock; applyit, inclined; cowhubye, fool; dery dan, copulation; bewis, limbs

A Brash of Wowing