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Saturday, 1 August 2009

To the Highlands

Waiting at Glasgow Queen Street Station for a train to Inverness
Slipped the surly bonds of New Street with my book to read - High Albania - and my DVDs to watch - An Exile in Paradise - a picnic of goodies around two baguettes of smoked salmon and cream cheese made up for me by Lin, and Oscar of course, on his lead and in and out of his igloo, used by now to long train journeys. All day we head north, almost a routine; getting at mid-afternoon to handsome Glasgow Central Station; then a walk - sunny and warm, drawing my bag across dry pavements at last - to Glasgow Queen Street, then three and a half hours more via the magic ladder - Stirling, Dunblane, Gleneagles, Perth, Dunkeld & Birnham, Pitlochry, Blair Atholl - then beside the road and the rivers through steep Drumochter Pass - on to Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore, Carrbridge, from where I phone my mother's house to announce that I'll arrive at 7.34 in Inverness. "What! You said 31 July. Get a taxi." Minutes later as the train scurries downhill in a great wide circle over the viaduct above the Clava Stones, she relents and we're met by Sharon at the station and so up the A9 to Strathnairn and with Oscar squeaking with excitement up the dirt track to Brin Croft and the greeting terriers.
** ** **
In the Town Hall, Liverpool
Over the last few days Charlie and I have been helping run meetings in Liverpool. The idea is to help managers and politicians and other community representatives in the city’s five official, and relatively newly defined neighbourhoods, to work better; promoting clearer understanding of roles and responsibilities among members and officers, assisting officers to apply their professional expertise to politically led agendas, helping councillors get the best from their officers, identifying barriers and challenges being experienced, and thinking together about ways to improve communication and relationships. Each programme, over a couple of hours, has involved:
Welcome and introductions; objectives and ground rules (Chatham House), the reasons people are here; a look at the Liverpool context – councillors and officers initially at separate tables seeing how much they know about the governance arrangements in the city; how well people think they know one another – a mapping exercise (example from elsewhere) putting faces to places and roles with flip charts, photos of members and a plan of the city. "What don’t you know?" "Does it matter?"What do you need to know?” I give a talk on managing at the political interface, sharing my research across local government, with emphasis on working at the point where politics, management and professionalism converge – or fail to.
Then politicians and managers worked together on typical problems – critical incidents – talking around solutions but also around vision, values and skills. How do we make neighbourhood government work?
Charlie and I took notes for a summary to be circulated to everyone involved and in a morning off - successive workshops were afternoon and evening - I was a tourist, travelling by underground from Lime Street, surfacing beyond Birkenhead's seafront, crossing the top of the Wirral to West Kirby where I sought the street where Denys Rayner had lived when he got married. Under a turgid sky I cycled along the front - a brisk north westerly encouraging the wind surfers and dingy sailors on the marine lake where Rayner had taught his eldest son, Martin, to sail before WW2. Back on the train I got off at Hamilton Square and took the Royal Iris from Woodside a few minutes across the Mersey to its pier below the Liver Building.

* * *
I like it when names and actions mix. I've recently given high marks to a thesis by one of our students, Susanna Farmer, Town Clerk of Wisbech Town Council, here, with her father Reginald Phillips, on Graduation Day 14 July 2009. She's written a Master's thesis about ways councils like hers can pursue their duty under the 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act to protect and encourage local food growing. What delighted me was her analysis of the astute way the council, with its limited powers and even fewer resources, has found inventive ways to get local land brought back into cultivation as allotments and how as the officer of the council she's been able to help its elected members pursue that policy.
* * * Iason Athanasiades released from Iranian detention after being arrested, beaten and interrogated has written down a list of the books he'd like to have had in prison along with the hand annotated Holy Quran he was allowed and the copy of his mother Polymnia's PhD thesis on Julian the Apostate brought to his cell by the Greek Ambassador in Teheran and swiftly confiscated by his guards.
18 July 2009 ATHENS — Jail cells — alongside yoga studios — are the last bastions of true inner peace. When I became the first foreign journalist in decades to be thrown into Iran's notorious Evin Prison I was exposed to a mixture of intense interrogations amid long stretches of nothingness. Stripped of my laptop, cell phone and all human contact, I was forced to confront my ego and get used to spending time with me, myself and I.
The only printed matter in my jail cell was a copy of the Holy Quran. It was a previous inmate’s well thumbed edition that had come loose from its hardback spine. A neat hand had written several religious aphorisms in Arabic on its pages. Imagining I was resting against the thick pillar of one of the beautifully-carpeted Ottoman mosques of Istanbul, my adopted city, I spent hours reading the handwritten calligraphy.
On the second week the Greek ambassador was finally granted a 10-minute meeting. Leaving, he presented me with a copy of my mother’s Oxford Ph.D. thesis whose Greek edition he had happened to be reading. My guards confiscated it for “inspection” and I never saw it again. Perhaps they thought the perfidious Greeks had gone to the trouble of printing a book for their man containing disguised instructions within its unfamiliar alphabet.
Those were the only two books I saw. For the son of two academics who grew up in a house with floor to ceiling bookcases and whose only indulgence is haunting the aisles of secondhand bookstores in Boston, London and Istanbul, denying me reading matter was more painful than torture. Every day, I called the jailers and requested my mother’s book. Some of them visibly struggled with the concept that a woman could have written a book and looked at me as if I were trying to trick them. Others promised to convey the message but promptly forgot about me.
So I made reading lists in my head (see the list with hyperlinks to the books)
Several are recommendations by my Ministry of Intelligence interrogators. Others are themed on incarceration and were suggested by my friends.....
How I can relate to the 'torture' of being bereft of books, yet I have been in homes of people who's company I enjoy where there are none. These things vary greatly. For some to be deprived of TV might be 'torture' while, for me, such deprivation could be a small compensation for losing my freedom.
Perhaps the most telling book on Iason's list is: Ervand Abrahamian's Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Iran. Written in 1999 Athanasiades described this as 'the definitive book on torture both in the Islamic Republic and under the Shah. The book lays out in fascinating detail and with extensive documentation how torture in Iran differs from elsewhere: victims are brutalised until something other than information is obtained — a public confession and ideological recantation. For the victim whose honour, reputation and self-respect are destroyed, the act is a form of suicide. Recent examples of confessions include: Iranian-Canadian sociologist Ramin Jahanbegloo’s interview to a state-run news agency following his release(see this re the 'confession' and see also); Haaleh Esfandiari’s televised confession in a hotel room presented in documentary format on state-run television; and Roxana Saberi’s signed confession in prison.' And see this, with the 'before' and 'after' images from Global Voices about the trial of the moderate reformist Mohammed ali Abtahi
* * * I'm engrossed in Kadaré's Broken April. Stark writing of a stark landscape, full of the intensity and detail of a world where one tiny action can change everything. There are moments in the book where I hear the weather among the mountains and see the words of its characters punctuated by powerful music.
... "at once terrible, absurd and fatal, like all the important things." "Like all the really important things," she repeated ... "Yes" Bessian said "because to an Albanian a guest is a demi-god."(p.77).
Like all great writing, unlike film, the artist has not purloined the reader's imagination. Kadaré sets it galloping. I have an intimation that my thoughts have turned with enthusiastic curiosity towards Albania because there is a key to understanding a queue of confusions I've entertained about Greece and her neighbours.** ** ** On 26 July I commented on a blog by the Corfu author Maria Strani-Potts containing her parable The Pimping of Panorea
I do not regard the pimping of panorea as only the fault of the locals. There are national and vaster forces - international traffic in the abuse of Panorea
Sunday 2 Aug:
Dear Simon. You are right, but honestly when I see what the Corfiots and the international operators/exploiters do on a daily basis, what else can I think? I live here, I am a Corfiot, I love my birthplace, and I appreciate its unique values; I want my compatriots to have good health care, good mains water to drink, better means of transport. If they have to own a car it would be nice to have a place to park it. I would like to see the Corfiots use the land in an appropriate manner, and getting rid of the rubbish in a sensible way. My book Panorea was about Corfu. I have lived in many more countries than an average person and I do know the strengths and weaknesses of different countries' policies and strategies, but I do care passionately about this island, and everyday I am shocked by the shortsightedness and incompetence of our local politicians. I work in the hospital as a volunteer and I am dreading the day that I might end up there. I think am correct in comparing many of my compatriots to pimps, because this is what they are vis-a-vis the unscrupulous exploitation of the island. They are greedy and insensitive and we all have to suffer the consequences. My heart bleeds to see what has happened to this island. Kind regards Maria
Reply by return:
Dear Maria. Thanks for taking this newcomer seriously. Like a chicken who’s egg is hatched by a duck then tries one day to swim – to the dismay of both species - I was hopelessly imprinted on Greece by my father John, who married an Athenian, Maria, at a little church in Hermou Street long ago. (The Greek Orthodox Church accords you a second chance which, since they had both been divorced, was much appreciated in 1949). Both he and Maria are gone. They left me almost incapable of faulting Greece. I'm aware of the burden imposed on Greeks by Philhellenes like me, and so, thank goodness, have been willing to study the flaws of a beloved land, especially in Corfu, now Linda and I spend so much time there. Your writing on this turned out to be a beautifully crafted account (and that’s only the English version) of a tragedy affecting the whole world. Yet without humans landscapes and soundscapes are pitiless nature. With them they can be loved and, as you know too well, destroyed - the aboriginal story of the Fall, in modern terms, the Tragedy of the Commons. I would never forgo the apple (tho’ cowardly as Adam, I might blame it on ‘the woman’ - as men do) but what a Pandora’s Box* was released (blaming it on the woman again!) when men first doted on Kerkyra. If we can sort ‘our’ (the pronoun is intended – ‘our’ not ‘your’) problem on Corfu - a race between our nature and our intelligence - we might just be able to sort it out in other places. There are good brave people everywhere ...When your heart bleeds for your home, you are weeping in Corfu over the harm our flawed species is doing to the whole world. Best wishes. Simon
*It never was a box. it was a jar. Pandora's πιθος. But I read this tale as a child - probably before I read Genesis. I remember Arthur Rackam's picture of Pandora.After Prometheus stole the secret of fire, Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create Pandora as just part of his punishment for men. Pandora, among other gifts, such as curiosity, had been given a large jar. She was told by Zeus to keep it closed. She opened it. I would. All of the evils mankind had not known escaped from the jar. It seems obvious now that Zeus knew Pandora would take the lid off the jar. Why leave Hope at the bottom?

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