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Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Homework for here and there

It’s been raining a good deal. The house remains dry and warm. I’ve paid an electric bill in town and our water rate at the council offices in Ipsos – both bills collected for us from the shop where Democracy Street turns downhill. We’ve started putting down the marble skirting in the upstairs sitting room – bedding it in silicone propped by matches to allow for movement in the floor. Mr Leftheris advised against marble edging above wood but we think we can get away with it this way.In the day while we work or read we have music from Hajidakis, TheodorakisAxion Esti and Rembetika from Smyrna plus Bob Marley, Mozart, Dixie Chicks, Vaughan Williams, Kinks, Maurice Jarre, Jimmy Cliff, Callas, Billie Holiday, Azure Ray, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Blondie, Kings of Leon, and marches (mainly funeral) from one of the Corfu bands, to mention just a few – songs and music chosen by Amy and Richard as well as both of us. Each evening we’ve had a stunning selection of films to watch – Appaloosa, The Spanish Prisoner, Burn after Reading, Changeling, Seance, The Proposition. The big fig tree on the empty property beside the house has been cut down over Christmas. Its roots, said Mrs Leftheris, were lifting the concrete on the path to her and our front doors. We and they get more light but less shade. Within hours of arriving Bubble and her grown kittens, Double and Trouble, called round.We were invited to Sunday roast at Mark and Sally’s down the street. Arrived late afternoon, left very late. Talked, ate, drank. Drank, ate, talked. What was so delightful was that we could get away with breaking the rule about discussing religion and politics at table. We might have even touched on money. There were seven grown-ups, though you mightn’t have guessed it all the time, one delightful child but 6 months old and Teal, Mark’s beautiful black Labrador. Venerable G played the rebel from the valleys for a good part of the evening and even Lin joined in my suggestion that not all English people are perfidious though it was a truth widely known that no Welshman can be trusted to tell the truth, prompting G to repeat a slander about how many Welshman it took to kill a score of Englishman which drew from me the reminder that in Chester the law still allowed an Englishman to kill a taffy trespassing into the town. “With a bow and arrow” said G, which brought us to whose arrows fell on the French cavalry at Agincourt to greater effect. For G it was a Welsh victory. “Come off it G” I cried “you’ve got such a Celtic chip. Our greatest queen was a Tudor and where did she come from? Who beat the Plantagenet Richard at Bosworth Field to succeed him as King but Henry Tudor from Wales?” but there was no silencing him, nor wish to, until I admitted to being 80% Scots. “Well why didn’t you say so? Scots are Celts” says G. “Oh no” says I bent on provocation “my family’s probably more Norman” “Mine too” chips in Lin diverted momentarily from a grown-up conversation at the other end of the table. This led to us explaining to G the difference between Normans and Saxons and the continuing tension between the two to this day, but he dismissed this as a distraction, so I mentioned my great admiration for Winston Churchill and G rising to the bait began to speak of the rogue who’d ordered the Anglo-Saxon army to crush the striking miners at Tonypandy, which finally drew from Nancy, the only Hellene among us, the remark that we were behaving like Greeks, which undoubted compliment spurred a chorus from the whole table of “Lloyd-George knew my father, father knew Lloyd-George…” Arm-in-arm, Lin and I staggered a hundred yards home around one-o-clock wondering how Nancy’s daughter, that little girl who, on and off had watched the evening’s proceedings with bright intelligent eyes, would remember our happy evening, and we hadn’t even got on to the Irish.We learned that a friend of our supper companions, a lawyer, had been crossing the road by San Rocco Square a few days ago. Perhaps her mobile rang. M spoke of her being momentarily distracted. A truck ran her down, widowing her husband, half orphaning three children. The truck driver - distraught - lies in a mental ward. Such a cruel thing seems closer, not only because of acquaintance with the dead, but because this is an island more than half of which we see with a glance from our windows. * * * * My e-mail to Dhiaa – 19 Jan 09
Dear Dhiaa. I need to talk with you soon about these things. And this... S
Dear Simon, I'd love you to see this. In the links you sent me, I have seen nobility and self-denial at work. He reminded me of a very fascinating story of a man whose name was al-Hurr bin Yazid al-Riyahi (in English it means ‘the free’) who with less than an hour favoured death with Imam Hussain to leading the governor's army against him. Best Dhiaa
Dear Dhiaa, You will see from my blog that separating Judaism from the acts of the Israeli government has been difficult because of what I learned as a child. I had felt that if I came to speak against Israel I would be rejecting Judaism – from which I have learned so much - and expressing racist views about Jews, with consequences that all the world has seen in Europe’s dark century. I am in a moral limbo, made self-censored before the evidence of my eyes and ears about the terrible things happening in Gaza. I burden our friendship by sharing with you such moral hesitation. I like to be reminded by Obama – his inauguration today – who quoted in his memoir from 1 Chronicles 29:15 ‘For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.’ Once we were strangers to each other and know I think we travel together and I count myself fortunate that we have met and that I can tell you things that make me happy but also things that are less good. Thank you for telling me about ‘the free’. My best wishes to your dear family. Simon
Dear Simon, I highly appreciate your understanding and moral obligations toward other faiths. I am not cajoling you: On Sunday evening, our Iraqi community assembled at xxx Church to recite the Quran and Du'aa for the rest of the soul of a deceased Professor in Iraq (the father of a woman in our community), we also remembered the Martyrdom of Imam Hussein and the lessons learned from that episode. Some side exchanges took place between me and some other Iraqi friends who came from Holland and other parts of Europe; we talked about Britain, Birmingham and the co-existence and ethnic and religious tolerance in this country. No body was watching, no authority was observing and no personal gains were sought. We said the truth bluntly because we also felt morally obliged to say the truth. That was so subtle and delicate an issue: to distinguish between the UK policy since the 1920s towards Arabs, the Middle East and Muslims, and the way the British government treats Muslims and other foreigners on its soil. In the Middle East - probably because we are free of the guilt of the Holocaust - we never mixed between Judaism as a respected/ acknowledged religion and Zionism as a movement that will definitely ruin the whole world if it continues to be unchecked. There are Jews still living in most of the Arab and Muslim countries; there is a well-established Jewish community in Iran as well. In the Middle East the Jews have never suffered any consequences due to their faith, they have always been part of the community if not among its elites. In Iraq, Jews were merchants and goldsmiths; they had never been subject to boycotting or hatred. I think the three main world religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) can and must save the world, because they are also capable of destroying it. Every time I remember you - since I knew you - I thank Allah for this friendship. As I told you once, it was a turning point in my (and my family's) life. Please, take care and pass our kindest regards to your dear family. Dhiaa
Dear Dhiaa. Thank you for your generous reply. You say in beautiful words and logic “I think the three main world religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) can and must save the world, because they are also capable of destroying it.” What responsibility to place on such frail and wayward shoulders! A limited understanding of history has formed my views. Without deleting what I feel I know as truthful, I must enrich my grasp of a deeper and wider history which I have only heard about as ‘noises off’, distracting from the main drama. Now knowledge that I have long either ignored, viewed as irrelevant to, or which seemed to create ugly distortions in, my understanding of the story I had learned, must be assimilated into a richer narrative – one in which there are more ambiguities, contradictions and inconsistencies, and where human fallibility and misjudgement play a stronger part than in my simpler drama of heroes and villains engaged in an eternal conflict between good and evil. Such moral simplicities are for God who can offer redemption, not men, unable and unwilling – most of the time - to discern such bright distinctions (...and even God spoke from the whirlwind...Can you hook Leviathan? Book of Job). I did not think for one moment you were cajoling me. You’ve never done that, nor has it ever been part of our friendship. It was I who first read, then saw, Gerald Kaufman’s speech at the debate on Gaza, on 15 January, for myself. Only later, I received, your reference to the video of the Rabbi protesting. The timing seemed typical of the ways our communications coincide. The Rabbi’s distress is expressed, during a demonstration in the street, with fervour. His pain at the cruelty of men makes him distraught. He is like a reed, blown upon so strongly, it cannot hold a note. I’ve known for a long time that there are Rabbi’s who have opposed the state of Israel since its inception. Kaufman influences me because though equally distressed he speaks almost quietly and with such clarity and from such a wealth of experience and principles. He has for a long time struggled with his loyalty to the idea of an Israeli state and has not abandoned that position, but his words express, with dignity, the pain of a dissolving dream; sadness at the way successive Israeli leaders have colluded with and driven policies that undermine the humane principles that for him are inextricable from allegiance to Judaism. Kaufman has, like so many Jews, been forced to stand outside the shining city on a hill because it has been occupied by ordinary men - not guilty of crimes on the scale that were visited by the Nazi’s and their allies on Jews, but – and this was where I have felt so uncomfortable since I still believe the comparison invidious - possessed of a banality that has parallels with that which Hannah Arendt so acutely perceived as a defining the unimaginative thinking of a man like Adolf Eichmann. Kaufman rightly complained of the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza “They are not simply war criminals; they are fools.” It was Arendt who said Eichmann deserved the death penalty less for his direct involvement in genocide than for his lack of imagination – his banal incapacity to understand, as he pursued his career in the Third Reich, the consequences of his thoughts and the actions that followed. We are all capable of that, but his myopia fell into a uniquely malign category – or did it? Is there a reproach in what you and others are saying about century old Western European policies towards the Middle East? Where my thinking has been as dull is on that issue ‘so subtle and delicate’ that you were discussing at xxx Church. I have so little grasp of the distinction between ‘UK policy since the 1920s towards Arabs, the Middle East and Muslims, and the way the British government treats Muslims and other foreigners on its soil.’ I am perhaps like a liberal in the 1920s confused by the need to defend sovereignty in pursuit of the principles of the League of Nations while also confused by the problems for minorities created by the intensification of ethnic nationalism. I could try to imagine assimilation as the right route in some countries but the creation of a new nation for those without a homeland. Jews, as you say, were able to live safely and even successfully in many European countries at the price, to them, of assimilation – a measure that ultimately failed hideously under national socialism’s genetic methods of murdering even the most ‘German’ of Jews. From what you tell me it seems as if Jews could co-exist in many Muslim countries without being required to convert; that assimilation or co-existence did not mean abandoning faith and theology. I think this is the lesson many European leaders (and peoples) have re- learned now – and which was part of their earlier culture prior to the rise of European nationalism – that our strength must derive from our diversity. That anyone who obeys the law can succeed in the secular polity of a country in any walk of life regardless of their religion or ethnicity (and many other distinguishing differences) and indeed if they respect due process of law can partake in those processes that may lead to changes in the law. The trouble with this, I am learning, is that there are men who dislike a state that derives from the work of jurists; that in the late 19th century and early 20th century in Europe there were men and groups who derided constitutions created by lawyers. They wanted something more exciting, more zealous, less democratic, less humane. They saw ‘due process’ as a kind of weakness, inadequate as a means of realising grander goals than the well-run polity, in which civil assemblies can strive to negotiate their differences. They found such deliberations boring – language having, in their minds, no relationship to action, they exploited language for monologues, diatribes and subterfuge, spreading contempt for words among the people, turning the agora into a parade ground. As you know I spoke of the banality of evil – a concept capturing the ordinary ways evil begins with small incivilities of thought, words and action. But pondering Arendt’s wise invention, I’ve acquired faith in its converse - the banality of good. We are – even in wise maturity - children of our times, trapped like flies in the fixative of global trends, blind to the implications of our loyalties, as unable to see our way as most of our wisest predecessors, yet now and then separate and ordinary actions by men and women unknown to history may have determined - in ways I can only know by faith and conjecture - that a matter of import took a turn for the better rather than the worse. Tolstoy struggled with this – that a great battle might turn on the courage or cowardice of one human being who would themselves be unaware of their deed, seeking, expecting and knowing no renown but acting on some principle learned in their heart beyond the reach of history – the banality of good. Best wishes to your family. Simon
* * * E-mail from Karen L. 21/01/09 re Lozells and East Handsworth Ward meeting on 21 January
Simon. I attended the ward committee meeting. I came in late and left soon after the item on the allotments. Alan Orr outlined the facts - I think you know most of them already. Said the sports pitches were starting in a week or so and would hopefully be ready in spring. There might be some changes regarding the changing rooms (unspecified) Said that regrading work would start on the allotments within 2 weeks and that if everything went to plan they could be ready as early as the summer, but that would depend on legal bureaucracy etc. Both councillors asked him questions. Kim Brom (I assume it was she) asked him how come after so long and so many promises how could we have any faith that Persimmon would do anything now? He said that in the past, Persimmon and/or its subsidiaries have not had any specialist dealing with this issue, whereas now it's the dedicated role of one man and that man wants to get it all done by the end of the year. He said that if they didn’t make progress the council would start enforcement proceedings. I asked whether they had a cut-off point for starting enforcement and he said no, they would just see what happened. A lady called Rachel who knows you asked whether they were following normal project planning methods of simply making sure that they had the relevant timetables for planning stages etc planned in for the sports pitches and allotments to make steady progress. She suggested that if no progress had been made by the next ward committee meeting, they should start enforcement proceedings. I should have thought of that myself. Mahmoud Hussain then requested that Alan come back to the following ward committee and report on whether there was progress, and that this should be a standing item until it is resolved. 3 other members of the public asked questions about the sports pitches or allotments so the councillors will have been made fully aware that people are bothered about it...That was about it I think - Rachel might know more. I didn't stop around to discuss it with anyone as I had a lot to do this evening but Rachel came over and introduced herself as I was getting into my waterproofs...Hope that was all better than nothing anyway! Karen
E-mail from Rod Ling to whom I copied Karen’s account of the ward meeting
Simon. Thanks. I'm copying Geoff into this correspondence as he takes an interest in the VJA as well. Rod
From Simon to Philip Singleton, BIG City Plan and HAIG supporters:
To: Philip Singleton, BIG City Plan Team, 16th Fl. Alpha Tower, Suffolk St., Queensway B1 1TU Re: BIG City Plan Work in Progress Public Consultation: 12 Dec 2008-6th Feb 2009 From: Simon Baddeley, Handsworth Allotments Information Group (HAIG), Thank you for inviting views on the BIG City Plan. Handsworth Allotments Information Group (HAIG) speaks as a voluntary research and campaigning group, formed in 1994 to oppose the development of housing on the private Victoria Jubilee Allotments next to Handsworth Park. We have links to similar groups across the city and maintain links with others in the UK and beyond interested in urban food growing. We celebrate Birmingham’s reputation as ‘an allotment city’ with a tradition of encouraging local food growing. We offer these comments at the end of a ten-year campaign that will see Persimmon Homes, as part of a S106A, handing over to Birmingham City Council whose planning committee brokered the agreement, the largest new public allotment site in the UK since the Second World War. We suggest that policies and values that have protected and encouraged food growing in the inner suburbs – should be adapted so as to be applicable to the areas covered by the BIG City Plan. These comments are submitted as a digitised attachment to an e-mail – enabling us to include URL links to support our comments. Any final plan for which the BIG City Plan (BCP) is the blueprint, will be realised in circumstances that could be very different from those that held at the time that plan was conceived – conditions that add urgency to those elements, absent from the current blueprint, that could see the emergence of an agricultural sector in our city centre. Green space figures in the BCP as parks, gardens and tree-lined squares decorating their built surroundings, but current land values inside the plan’s boundary make the idea of releasing any of this space, and indeed yet more space, such as derelict land scheduled for building, for even temporary agriculture, out of the question. The BCP offers a means to make such a vision imaginable. Academics around the world are beginning to circulate terms like 'coming famine' and ‘peak oil’ when referring to western modern, post-industrial, cities. We suggest, on both the precautionary principle as well as for its inventiveness, Birmingham should have contingency plans for feeding its population, formulated in the same detail and with the same urgency as the WW2 domestic front initiative ‘Dig for Victory’, or subsequent peacetime civil defence plans. We should try to anticipate a bold response to depression, not just recession, especially in planning the future of a city in which finance and banking have come to play such a part. This emergency response which some might call alarmist, promises impetus to existing plans to reduce our city’s carbon-footprint, shortening food-miles, moving us faster towards the global vision of sustainability. A conceptual shift in attitudes to land usage in Birmingham’s centre, driven by a sense of urgency over the state of the economy, can be an example to the region and beyond, mitigating the effects of depression on citizens, complementing other moves to make Birmingham cleaner and greener. Existing policies in Birmingham that relate to allotments and smallholdings – a key dimension of urban agriculture along with city farms and gardens - should become applicable in the city’s core, supplemented by initiatives to bring more land in the area into short and long term cultivation. We are unaware of any strategy in Birmingham for urban agriculture (though we acknowledge questions 17 and 18 in the consultation circular as those touching on this). London is leading on releasing land for food growing with a number of initiatives that recognise the high premiums associated with inner city land. Its policies in this area, which we would like to see matched by Birmingham’s and included in the BCP, are part driven by Whitehall’s realisation that the 1908 Smallholders and Allotments Act’s 'requirement to provide' is now impeded by a loss of slack in the system. This is unprecedented – at least since the 1940s. Allotments are full up in many places especially in the capital. The Greater London Authority has published a report on this problem (scroll down to see 'A lot to lose'). There are lengthening waiting lists in other cities, including Birmingham with its hitherto generous post-war allotment provision. Birmingham’s Big City Plan (BCP) – in the summary circulated for comment – makes no reference to agriculture. In the capital, Rosie Boycott has been appointed by the newly elected Mayor of the Greater London Authority (GLA) to act as a public champion for an agency called London Food. Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London’s City University and advisor to DEFRA, is tasked with pushing a policy to reduce food miles. In Middlesbrough a policy has emerged devoted to the idea of ‘the edible city’, promoting urban farming on an ambitious scale - developed around a comprehensive audit of existing and future agricultural land in the city and its surroundings. The edible-city programme is complemented by policies aimed at employment and recreation for an ageing population (‘don’t vegetate, grow vegetables’), at improved health, environmental education and sustainability. We need thinking within the BCP that will prompt Birmingham’s political leadership to exceed such initiatives. Another GLA policy called Capital Growth (‘Two thousand and twelve new food growing spaces for London by 2012') focuses on identifying growing spaces in the capital that includes allotments and city farms, but also targets waste land and domestic gardens – exploring short term leasing and legal arrangements that could even include compulsory purchase. Birmingham’s planners, in collaboration with local university geography departments, could create an equally specific audit of land available – short and long term – for agriculture within the BCP boundaries. This may have been done already but it’s not part of either the BCP or indeed the latest Structure Plan – prepared at a time when allotments were still seen primarily for recreation rather than part of urban agriculture in a different world. There is talk in London’s centre, where land prices are astronomic, of finding ‘meanwhile’ gardens, popular in New York in the 1980s – releasing, for cultivation, land temporarily taken over by the city in lieu of unpaid taxes from landowners in financial difficulty. Economic pressures on landowners suggest such possibilities should figure in the BCP. There is a politics of city agriculture and urban food growing in London and other cities for which there could be an equivalent, special to Birmingham, using the BCP as one of its expressions – prompting policies that will encourage inner city and city centre people to grow at least some of their own food. We move that Birmingham’s Scrutiny function should explore this further. City centre agriculture must be included in a credible BCP. At the debate in Westminster Hall on 5 November 2008, the Government said they would not impose time scales on local authorities’ duty to provide allotments, on the grounds that Whitehall is already accused of not allowing local authorities sufficient autonomy. The ball is in our court.
[Back to the future - 4 March '09 - A diversity of ideas - city home food produce - and fashions - sobriety chic - mentioned on David Barrie's blog] [This on 10 March about Van Jones joining Obama's administration to give impetus to a Green agenda] [Back to the future - 15 March '09 - see Cuban farming, evolved under blockade fover a generation, as a model for urban agriculture in the west]
[Birmingham City Council consultation portal ~ 28 January 2009]

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Simon Baddeley