A Brief History of Syria

October 31, 2013 § 1 Comment

Soho Theatre, September 29th, Dan Snow

The theatre went dark; Dan Snow was announced, but no one arrived. There was nervous laughter, a ripple of anticipation – then on he comes, tall, open shirt. Very causal.  A slight “there’s a rock star in the house” feel descends, particularly when Dan begins by telling us that he’s just come back from the Congo. He likes dangerous places, it seems. We didn’t mind though. Actually, we approved.

He was pretty good. Lots of information. Here are a few bits and pieces. (Huge apologies if any of this is incorrect. I was writing in the dark and he covered about 10,000 years and said quite a few words I couldn’t spell.)

  1. On medieval maps of the world, before Columbus, Syria is slap bang in the middle. It was the nexus of ancient history, on the route not just for trade but for ideas and language. The first complex civilisation was established there about 10,000 years ago. Damascus and Aleppo are probably the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
  2. Conquerer upon conquerer arrived – Egyptians, Mongols, Alexandra the Great, the Romans, French and British. The physical geography of the country changed along with each new invader.
  3. Khālid ibn al-Walīd, known as the Sword of Allah, (592–642), is “perhaps the best general we’ve never heard of.” He won over 100 battles and was key in spreading Islam.
  4. The Ottomans created a Sunni manorial-type of aristocracy, but this was starting to crumble by the early 20th Century. As shipping routes  improved, the old silk route through Syria was abandoned.
  5. The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and so it is in Syria, where about 75% of the Muslim population are Sunni. The remainder are Shia. Assad is part of the Shia minority. In addition, he is an Alawite – a minority within a minority. (Good bit on what this means across the region here.)
  6. After World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence. Between us, the British and French created eight states, with new borders. The French claimed Syria because, they argued, they had played such a large part in the Crusades.  Under French rule, the Alawite minority was favoured and promoted – divide and rule type of thing. Assad’s father benefited.
  7. After Word War II, Syria was granted independence. However, the new state struggled. Intellectuals were put in charge but there weren’t many of them. Under the French, pre-World War II, only 350 Syrians were in higher education (not sure when and where but it seems like a good stat). In addition, the French charged the newly independent Syria 50 million Syrian pounds – the cost of their occupation.
  8. Ater the creation of Israel, Syria embarked on a series of disasterous wars. Most Syrians regarded the Golan Heights and other parts of Israel as being Syrian territory.
  9. In general, Alawites (about 12% of the population)  are more left wing than the conservative Sunni majority.  In addition, Assad has been very secular. He married in a civil ceremony, for example. But that doesn’t make him the good guy.
  10. In 1982, Assad’s brother, General Rifaat al-Assad, led the Hama massacre, when the Syrian army besieged the town of Hama for 27 days and ultimately crushed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is estimated that 20,000 people were killed.
  11. Before the current civil war, the Syrian population had grown by one third in the last 10 years. Unemployment was high and schools were running double-shifts to cope. Oil is running out and at the end of the 2000s, there were a series of droughts. Prices were also increasing. In addition, as markets have been liberalised, a small number of the ruling regime have become very rich. For example, one of Assad’s cousins owns two large mobile phone companies and all the duty free shops.
  12. The civil war was triggered when the police beat up a market trader.
  13. And, to make a link back to my write up about infectious diseases, the WHO have just confirmed the first cases of polio in Syria for 14 years. (Thanks to my friend, Liz, for prompting that thought.) Not good. Really, not good.
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A couple of poets and some other stuff

October 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been a bit lax about writing up these talks. It’s poor. Very poor. Over the last few weeks, it’s been Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Oscar Wilde (the betrayal of) and Victorian England (life and death in). Here are a few things I have learned.

1. Sylvia Plath, King’s Place, 23rd September, some people whose names I have forgotten/lost, plus Juliet Stevenson reading.

It’s impossible to think about Sylvia Plath without being influenced by how she died.  As she said in “Lady Lazarus”,

Dying

Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

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So smiley, yet so sad

2. Philip Larkin, King’s Place, 7th October, people from The Archers and some musicians.

Philip Larkin’s relationship with women doesn’t make for a light-hearted evening round the piano. Love his work but he didn’t treat the ladies too well. Attempting to turn that into a semi-humourous exploration of his sex-life was possibly an error, even (or maybe especially)  when presented by Lilian and the Reverend Alan from The Archers. Larkin had three mistresses and, for some years, all at the same time.  Monica Jones, who is generally seen as his soul-mate (whatever that means) was an academic whom Larkin met at Leicester University, where he worked as librarian prior to moving to Hull.  They had an affair from 1947 until his death 40 years later. Maeve Brennan, a devout Roman Catholic and a member of Larkin’s library staff in Hull, was with him from 1961, on and off, for about 17 years. Then there was Betty Mackereth, his secretary at the library in Hull. We were told that each woman added to Larkin’s life in a different way which must have been jolly nice for him. This all singing, all dancing Larkin romp was at King’s Place, so in front of a very Guardianesque audience. They surprised  and confused me at their willingness to guffaw at the way Larkin used all three women (and more).

Larkin and Betty having a picnic

Larkin and Betty having a picnic

But none of that should put you off reading his poetry. Really.

3. Oscar Wilde, Soho Theatre, September 25th, David Hare, Rupert Everett, Merlin Holland

Oscar Wilde has a grandson who talks about his grandfather. That made me feel rather close to the Victorians.

Wilde was tried for gross indecency.  He could have run away but instead waited at the Connaught Hotel to be arrested and, apparently, here lies his immortality.  If he’d fled, would he be remembered still?

Rupert Everett is still fab. He described Wilde in his last days as “a terrifying hag,” living down in the Paris sewers. He described how being famous can lead you to think you are immune to being toppled. Wilde felt that everyone loved him. “The country is behind me to a boy.”

Rupert as Oscar

Rupert as Oscar

4. The Victorians, Soho Theatre, September 29th, Judith Flanders, Kate Colquhoun and Claie Armitstead

There are everyday bits of history that are lost to us simply because we were not there (Dickens is full of this kind of thing, if you know where to look). For example, Victorian streets were incredibly noisy, so loud that often you couldn’t hear a conversation. Burial grounds were so full that the level of churchyards just kept rising. One, in Dury Lane, was as high as the first floor windows.  The best place to sit in a train was with your back to the engine, thus reducing the chance of getting smut in your eyes. That kind of thing.

Cars were originally welcomed as “non-polluting” transport – ie no horse poo.

 

Next time: Syria.

Talk 3: Winning and Losing the Fight Against Infectious Diseases

September 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

Talk given by Professor Christopher Dye, World Health Organisation, 16th September 2013

I queued for this one, down the steps of the Royal Society and out along Carlton Terrace, watching gentlemen on their way to gentlemen’s clubs like the Carlton and Whites. Smart area. The Royal Society is pretty nice. Turns out lots of people want to hear about infectious diseases. While we waited for the Professor, people chatted.

“What field are you in?”

“I was in chemical engineering but I’m retired now. And you?”

“I work on malaria.”

(Obviously, this wasn’t me.)

Professor Dye, younger than I had imagined, said he was going to give us “a personal view of infectious diseases.”  Apparently, Hollywood has much to answer for in terms of how we understand, or misunderstand, the nature of infection – we saw some pictures from Contagion, which I don’t think Prof Dye really enjoyed.

Here are some more things I learned.

1. We should all be frightened of pandemics – H1N1, Spanish Flu, etc. – but most deaths from infectious diseases (IDs) are not caused by pandemics. Fifteen million people a year die from IDs that just inhabit their everyday lives – diarrhoea, HIV, TB, malaria, meningitis. About 20 pathogens account for nearly all deaths from IDs.

2. In the UK, death rates from IDs fell for three centuries from the early 18th Century. This is largely due to better sanitation, more food, and better public health – things like vaccinations. However, in recent years, death rates have finally plateaued at around 13 per 100.  The downside is that there has been a steep rise in non-communicable diseases but, as Prof Dye pointed out, we do all have to die of something.

3. There is a link between infectious and non-infectious diseases. For example, being under-weight makes a person more susceptible to TB. In the West, we eat well so TB is not so prevalent. However, because we eat well, we develop diabetes. Having diabetes makes a person more susceptible to TB. Tricky.

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Public health campaigns in the 1920s tried to halt the spread of TB.

3. In the developing world, not surprisingly the rates are the other way round.

4. The good news is that control of infectious diseases was one of the Millenium Goals and money spent on controlling IDs has risen from £5b in 1990 to £25b in 2010. However, since 2010 the rate of increase has declined. One reason for this is the growing importance of non communicable diseases.

5. Living in a city is both good and bad news. Since 2007, more of us have been living in urban areas  than rural ones and in cities of over 500,000, infections  really flourish. On the up side, infant mortality rates are substantially lower in cities than in the countryside, even for people living in slums.

6. It is probable that the 2003 SARS pandemic emerged from bats in South Asia. One in two people infected died. Researchers can follow its spread from five guests in the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong to 206 other people. It is probable that SARS is no longer in the human population.

7. There is reason to worry about resistant to antibiotics – in the last 40 years, there have been no major developments. On the other hand, researchers don’t really understand why some diseases become resistant while others don’t. For example, syphilis has never become resistant to penicillin, so the case is not completely lost.

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drug-resistant-tuberculos

8. Only two diseases have ever been officially eradicated, small pox and rinderpest, a disease in cattle. The major emphasis now is on eradicating polio, which persists in rumbling on in Africa and parts of Asia. Professor Dye asked Paddy Power for odds on eradicating polio and was given 4-1.

9. There are 2.4 billion people in the world without access to piped drinking water, and 1 billion without access to sanitation. Given that we have known how to do both since the 1850s, when James Bazelgette reclaimed the banks of the Thames in order to construct sewers (John Betjeman said, “Our nation stands for democracy and proper drains”), why have those billions had to wait for so long for clean water?

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Bazelgette inspects his work.

10. We don’t really understand the connection between infectious diseases and genes. Why do only 1 in 10 people infected by tuberculosis develop the disease?

Talk 2: The Brother Gardeners: Botony, Empire and the Birth of Obsession

September 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

Talk given by Andrea Wulf at the British Library,

21st August, 2013

I’m a little late writing this up due to holidays and being in a motor home traveling around the North of England. Apologies to anyone on the edge of their seats, waiting for news of botony, empire and the birth of obsession.

Held in the Conservation Centre at the British Library and attended largely by people who looked like Edwardian gardeners each with their own creeper-lined Hampstead oasis, The Brother Gardeners was about the discovery and introduction of many of the plants we (or whose of you who garden) have in your gardens. Here are some things I learned.

1. Britain is the only country with gardening celebritites. Apparently, we (the British) grieve for plants which get damaged or die.

2. In 1734, Peter Collinson, a London draper with an interest in botony, imported his first two boxes of seeds from John Bartram. Bartram, an American farmer, explorer and friend of Benjamin Franklin (they founded the American Philosophical Society together), traveled across the Eastern colonies collecting plants and seeds, which he then sent to Collinson, who ran a kind of mail order service for would-be gardeners. The business was a big hit with gentry, nurserymen, and natural scientists.

Image

John Bartram at work. Obviously this is a made up picture. No known portrait of him exists.

3. America wasn’t the only source of new plants. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander sailed on Cook’s Endeavour, collecting plants from Tahti, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Indeed, Botony Bay was so called because of the huge number of plants they discovered there. For a while, they were a bit like rock stars due to their plant collecting success.

4. In the early 18th Century and before, gardens tended to be based on geometry – straight lines and box hedges. The plants that came from Bartram and others encouraged gardeners to experiment with less formal designs. They loosened the gardeners’ grip on nature. The trees he and Collinson introduced helped change the autumnal landscape in this country, adding red to the native yellow foliage.

5. All these gardeners didn’t necessarily know what to do with the strange plants and seeds they were receiving in their boxes. There was no Gardeners’ Question Time in the 18th Century. Thank goodness then for Philip Miller, Head of the Chelsea Physic Garden, who wrote The Gardeners’ Dictionary, the first manual for practical gardening based on experiment and observation rather than folk law and superstition. It was professional knowledge for the amateur.

6. For a while, all these new plants had different names depending on where in world you were, which made ordering tricky. Then along comes Swedish botonist, Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus sounds like quite the character. He made up extra exciting adventures and routes he’d traveled, insisted on wearing the traditional dress of the Sami people of Lapland and named weeds after people he didn’t like. More importantly, he introduced a classification system, based on the reproductive nature of each plant. This sexual system shocked British gardeners, who thought it too smutty, but it did eventually become the universal system for naming plants.

Image

Linnaeus in traditional dress, holding the twinflower that became his personal emblem (I think I need an emblem).

All you good folk who garden will notice that I haven’t actually mentioned any plants. For that kind of detail you will need to read Andrea’s book for yourself. She seemed clever and funny so I imagine her book is worth a look. In the meantime, here is a picture of a relevant plant.

Image

John Bartram first discovered specimens of the Bartram oak, Quercus x heterophylla, a rare but naturally occurring hyprid of red and willow oak on a nearby estate, The Woodlands, upriver from Bartram’s own garden in Philadelphia.

 

 

Talk 1: Great American Photographers

August 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

One off class taught by Armelle Skatulski at City Lit

If you live in London, you might have noticed the rain a couple of nights ago. There was lots of it. Picture me then, walking to Covent Garden under a big, black umbrella, the backs of my trouser becoming wetter and heavier. I think the weight of my damp clothing slowed me down as I arrived late. Armelle had already given out the handouts, small black and white reproductions of the photographs to be discussed, starting with Lewis Hines and the famous “Workers Lunch”. In the next two and a half hours, she took us through some twelve photographers, all working in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Here are some things I learned. The more informed of you will know all this already so feel free to skip ahead or completely.

1. Lewis Hines was a social reformer who, along with his photographs of men working precariously on the Empire State Building, took dozens of pictures of child workers standing next to the machinery they operated or the crops they picked. Like these girls.

images-1 images-2

2. Something about pictorialism, which I gather is about photographers creating images rather than just recording them, or as Armelle said, “producing an image in the language of painting.”

3. Alvin Coburn invented the Vortograph, which is a bit like Cubism, with the image chopped up.

4. Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, “The destitute peapickers in California,” better known as “Migrant Mother” was taken to support the New Deal agenda of the Resettlement Administration’s (later known as the Farm Security Administration’s) documentary project. The project aimed to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers brought to poverty by the Depression.

Dorothea herself said of taking these pictures: “There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

According to photographer and writer, Michael Stone, “That help came quickly. Lange sent the photos to her employer, the Resettlement Administration in Washington, prompting a quick response by federal bureaucrats who rushed food supplies to peapicker camp. She also gave them to the San Francisco News, which featured two wide-angle shots in a March 10, 1936, article on the hardship endured by harvest workers. On the following day, it placed the iconic Migrant Mother picture above an editorial on the New Deal agenda. The ensuring uproar was a catalyst that inspired John Steinbeck to write his most influential novel, the Grapes of Wrath.”

That was all good but not much use for Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the picture, and her family, who had already left the camp by the time the extra food arrived. In later years, Thompson noted that Lange had not even asked her name and said that she wished the picture had never been taken. She’d earned nothing from it. As it was a government funded project, neither did Lange, although, of course, she did go on to have a renowned and acknowledged career. So not quite equal.

On the upside, apparently there are no restrictions on the use of these pictures so it might be the only imagine I can safely put on this blog.

250px-Lange-MigrantMother02

I think some other people were annoyed with me. I tried to say that I couldn’t imagine the current Government funding photographers to document the damaging results of their policies, as the FSA funded Dorothea Lange and the others. “Yes, that happens,” said one woman. “The Arts Council gives out grants like that all the time.” This didn’t seem very likely to me but I lacked any facts with which to counter her.

The teacher was good, very knowledgeable, and acted a little like a French Annie Hall. She thought almost everything was “very interesting.”  I saw that the man next to me wrote on his evaluation form, “The worse class I have ever been to,” which shocked me. He was looking at his phone the whole time anyway. Maybe if he listened more he could have avoided being so darn rude.

And, to finish, here’s a lady I like, Margaret Bourke-White, who seems to have photographed everything, from the liberation of Buchenwald for LIFE to capturing the young Marlon Brando. Quite a career.

margaret-bourke-white-cover36586

The Road West

August 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

We’re just back from Wales, from Saundersfoot, near Tenby. We go there every year and it’s lovely, even when it rains, which it does a bit, but not as much as you’d think. For the past five or maybe six years we’ve spent the first week of the school summer holidays there, sometimes just us, sometimes with others. It marks the start of summer, the beginning of the fun.

That’s still true, although now it also marks the anniversary of my diagnosis. Two years ago, I had to come back on the train to attend my appointment, when I was told I had breast cancer. I then took the train back to Tenby and played beach cricket with lovely people in the fading light of a beautiful, warm summer evening, the kind of evening that was already nostalgic and sentimental just by dint of it being perfect.

So now two years have gone by and this year I was less tense than a year ago, and certainly less tense than two years ago. Two years is a good length of time and, as a friend who went through all this herself predicted way back, I no longer wake up every morning with cancer as the first thing on my mind. And that’s good, very good. Time goes by and I’m calmer. I still assume that every new ache and pain is something hideous, but I also have a bit more perspective and less often these days do I look at random people walking by and think, “It’s alright for you,” assuming that strangers have no problems and nothing going on that is half as bad as what’s happenng with me. I’ve talked to lots of people, checked out this and that with doctors and counselors (but never online, never, never), and I try to be sensible and not worry too much. Not always easy but it’s the only way I can think of to approach things.

I just reread all that and I sound a bit glum and sorry for myself still, don’t I? Clearly, it is time to cheer up and I think I have, mostly. There is other stuff to get my head round now but keeping busy is still apt. Without wanting to sound too Oprah, there are lots of things out there to do and maybe it’s time to start doing some of them.  I wondered about taking an evening class but couldn’t decide on anything. And actually what I want is just to know more, generally. So here’s the plan: to go to as many talks (or similar) as possible and to write about them here. Talks about anything and everything. In London, where everyone is their own little expert, that must be possible. If there’s anywhere to learn what everyone else knows, it has to be here.

To kick off the new Anne is Keeping Busy, this evening I’m going to a talk at City Lit, “Great American Photographers.” So, in that spirit, here’s a great American photograph which says something about going forward, the road ahead and so on. (I think this might have been taken during the depression, when the Road West wasn’t really much of a solution for all those migrating, desperate farmers, but let’s now worry about that now.)

Dorothea Lange, "The Road West."

Dorothea Lange, “The Road West.”

Naked lady having a picnic

February 21, 2013 § 3 Comments

Last week I went to the Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy. It made me think about this blog and how I haven’t written anything about anything for a goodly while. There are many reasons for this – fear, idleness, getting in too deep with Coronation Street – but maybe it’s time to say something again.

Firstly, the exhibition. To paraphrase my friend Hilary, I liked some paintings very much and others not at all. I can only muster so much enthusiasm for nineteenth century Parisian writers, dancers and thinkers, most of whom I haven’t heard of, too many of whom looked like King George V. Having said all that, there were some lovely portraits of some cool sounding ladies, including Berthe Morisot in her fashionable black hat. (Apparently Manet was particularly good at painting black.)

250px-Edouard_Manet_040

Then there’s this painting, The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe), 1863.

300px-Édouard_Manet_-_Le_Déjeuner_sur_l'herbe

There’s a certain craziness to this picture, everyone having lunch, chatting about art and such, but oh, hang on, the lady is completely naked. She looks bored, like the guys are just talking on and, even without clothes, no one is paying her any attention. If we are to believe Wikipedia, the woman has the body of Manet’s wife and the face of one of his favourite models, while the two chaps are his brother and future brother-in-law.

So now I’m going to make a terrible link from this picture to a “how am I” section (I’m a bit out of practice at this writing business remember).

I look at this lady and a bit of me thinks that would be ever so nice, to sit as she is, not really bothered about being naked. A year after my surgery and I couldn’t hand on heart say that my body feels like my own. I mean, it does, of course, it isn’t anyone else’s, but it’s not what it was. It feels different, more achy, tighter, and I really don’t know what’s what. Is an ache just an ache from being pulled about or being 47, or is it something more sinister? Not sure what I can and can’t trust.

On the other hand, my new breasts, built by the finest plastic surgeon ever, Ms Caroline Payne (if you need one) are good, everyone says so. A year on and I’m about to have nipples added through the medium of the tattoo  (yes, really, and on the NHS, God bless it’s little surgical socks). The nurse doing the work asked if I would mind having some before and after photographs taken. Plastic surgeons and their crew are very keen on the before and after shots, so they can show other patients what things will look like. I’m fine about it. It helped me to imagine what a double mastectomy might look like so what the heck. No head shots though. Previously it’s been my plastic surgeon and her little camera snapping away in her small consulting room. This time, it was all rather professional, in a department called “Medical Photography” – who even knew such a facility existed? It was a proper studio, with a back drop and lighting. I stood, top off, turning a little to the left, then to right, chatting away to the nice lady photographer. She was impressed, hadn’t seem work like it, apparently.

And the odd thing is that all this seems perfectly reasonable to me nowadays. The world and his medical wife have seen my baps by now and presumably even as we speak I’m being downloaded into the pre-nipple tattooing photo gallery. It’s way too late to crave modesty.

So, lady sitting having lunch with no clothes on, I do kind of get you. Half one woman, half another, you’re just trying to make the best of your day, and if there’s anything I understand, it’s that.

(OK, how did that link work? I told you I was out of practice.)

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