Wednesday, July 26, 2006

 

Book Notes: Guns, Germs and Steel

Well, now that I’ve finished my pile of magazines, I can finally begin to move on to some of the many books that I’ve accumulated over time. The problem here is that many of my magazines contain book reviews, and an interesting-sounding book will inevitably make its way onto my Amazon wish list (more of a general-purpose shopping list, really), which will usually mean that sooner or later it’ll make its way onto my bookshelf. It will then remain on my bookshelf, unread, more or less forever – for I’m far too busy reading those magazines to be able to get through any books.

It’s a rare pleasure, then, to be able to read, so it was with a certain sense of glee that I recently approached (at random) one of my plastic bags of books and carefully upended it onto the floor. After removing from the resulting pile those few books that I had already read, I was left with an enticing stack, and ultimately pounced upon one that I've coveted reading for some time: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. The book exemplifies the delayed-reading trend all too well: it was first published in 1997 to great acclaim, and had been on my shopping list ever since. It only finally made its way to my shelf earlier this year, when Una thoughtfully sent it to me as a birthday present.

The reason why the book had been so well received was that it’s one of those rare gems which helps you to see a familiar subject in an intriguing new way. The subject matter is human history, but the methodological approach is that of science, which makes for a very interesting combination. Most attempts to apply scientific reasoning to the process of human history have met with a decidedly unimpressive success rate (Marx, anyone?), leading to deterministic accounts of history going rather out of fashion. Diamond sidesteps this: he seeks not to predict the future, but rather to account for certain outcomes in the past; his motive is scientific inquiry rather than the articulation or formation of any political manifesto. Although the brief biographical notes in his later book, Collapse, say that the result of Guns, Germs and Steel was to revolutionise the study of global history, it would be slightly more accurate to say that the book forms a foundation stone for a new field of historical study altogether: the macrohistory of the underlying trends informing the creation and evolution of human civilisation, as opposed to the microhistory of “one damn fact after another” that constitutes the atheoretical study of history as we commonly know it.

The question that Diamond sets himself to answer is a perennial one in history: why is it that when human societies throughout history have encountered each other across continents, one society has been able to subjugate or eliminate the other? Surely all humans started at the same point? A vivid illustration of the quandary is given by the early 16th century meeting of the Spanish conquistadors and the then-mighty Incan empire: a force of 200 mounted Spaniards was able through superior technology to rout an 80,000-strong Incan army and capture the Incan Emperor, and the diseases that they brought with them from Europe resulted in the death of 95% of the native population of the Americas. Such a pattern of conquest has repeated itself throughout history and pre-history when different societies have encountered each other, and not just in the age of Western imperialism. How was it, then, that one society – the Spanish – came to have the technology (the guns and the steel of the title) and the diseases (the germs) necessary for dominance, and the other society – the Inca – did not?

The answer takes in the entire history of the domestication of plants and animals in different regions and the diffusion of such concepts within and between continents. The specialisation of individual roles in society enabled by agriculture leads to technological advance, while the growth of permanent villages in close proximity to large herds of domesticated animals leads to the growth of disease. The original feasibility of the establishment of agriculture depends largely upon climate and the availability of those plants and animals (both surprisingly few in number) that are suitable for domestication, while the (equally important) spread of such ideas depends on geographic barriers to human interaction across which certain human innovations simply cannot cross. The story of how the knowledge of cattle herding from the fertile crescent was able to spread from the Indus Valley to Iberia, but llama domestication in the Andes was unable to make it past Panama to Mesoamerica, is fascinating.

It is clear that one of Diamond’s burning ambitions with the book is to finally provide an authoritative account that will banish forever the spurious racist notions of the inherent superiority of certain groups of people over others that informed many traditional accounts of how some civilisations were able to conquer others. In this he succeeds completely. In many ways, this isn’t hard: most modern, liberal citizens instinctively find the very concept of racial superiority inherently flawed. The authoritative dismissal of such notions is nevertheless welcome. The crowning achievement of the book, however, is to bring the entire arsenal of linguistic, evolutionary and ecological analysis to bear on the course of history in a way that integrates pre-history and modern history seamlessly.

Diamond is particularly well-suited to bringing a new perspective to the study of history: his areas of expertise include biological science, ecology, evolutionary biology, and environmental history, while his grasp of linguistics, archaeology, and historical events is truly prodigious (although his grasp of political science, one senses, is rather more shaky). His scientific approach is calm and methodological – very refreshing – and instead of constructing arguments and then summoning evidence to support his conclusions, his preferred structure is to lay out the relevant available evidence before offering an explanation that accounts for the outcomes. Where relevant, he modestly attaches caveats and discusses (and usually dismisses) alternative accounts.


This is squarely a work of popular science rather than academia (although some of his chapters do read like thinly-disguised lectures), and it is near-impossible for the layman (such as myself) to evaluate the veracity of the accounts that he constructs, but his arguments are consistent and insightful and the value of a book such as this for anyone interested in history cannot be overestimated: suddenly, the entire span of human history seems contextualised through his accounts of how prehistoric human evolution and human ecological interactions with the planet have informed the course of human history. The tone of the writing – although demanding concentration – is one that exudes erudition, and Diamond has a satisfying knack of correctly identifying and answering immediately the criticisms of his arguments that occur to the reader. The result is a very satisfying and illuminating read.

It is thus moderately irritating to occasionally be frustrated by some poor editing: grammar errors and unwieldy turns of phrase make it through every so often, at least one map has been printed in such a way as to be illegible, and the glossy illustration plates seem to be of only tangential relevance to the text. These minor irritations are easily overlooked, however, to leave a fascinating and hugely insightful book that is necessary reading for anyone interested in the origin of civilisation and the path of ancient history, and in how the factors that shaped the course of ancient history still exert pressure upon human societies today.

Friday, July 21, 2006

 

Phew

On a slightly less serious note, I have finally managed to work my way to completion of my immense mountain of magazines. What on earth am I going to do with my time now? Apart from playing videogames and maybe actually dipping into some books, of course.
Suggestions on a postcard. Or just leave a comment.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

 

The Unlucky Country

You’ve got to feel sorry for Lebanon. A century ago, Beirut was one of the jewels in the Ottoman crown – a cosmopolitan centre, a trade centre, a city of great beauty and wealth. The country was a veritable crossroads, with a diverse population to match. It was Paris on the Mediterranean, and its beauty was surely eternal.

One hundred years on, of course, the vulnerability of such a great city is much clearer. Lebanon sits at the centre of an arc of instability – stretching to South Africa in one direction, and to India in the other – which proves that what works quite nicely in an imperial context often doesn’t turn out to be so great when the provinces gain their independence. The diverse patchwork of ethnic and religious groups which made Lebanon such a cosmopolitan haven in a time of externally-imposed order and stability was to lead to untold suffering and bloodshed when the House of Osman fell in Constantinople, and the great Turkish Empire was divvied up amongst the great powers of Europe through the League Mandates. France got Lebanon, and gave it its independence in 1943, after which it pottered along unsteadily for a few decades, suffering mainly from the presence of a large number of Palestinian refugees (and the attendant attention from Israel that their activities brought). But any heterogeneous country formed out of an administrative unit rather than a common national consciousness will find itself easy prey for those whose sense of identity is exclusionary, and Lebanon suffered insurrection in 1958 before falling in 1975 into sixteen years of bloodthirsty sectarian civil war which led to massacre, destruction, several Israeli interventions and occupations, and ultimately to the Syrian occupation which restored order in the North and centre of the country.

But as soon as the descent into civil war led to power vacuums, Lebanon became a giant chess board for the machinations of the regional powers, and recent events have confirmed that it still is, despite the vaunted (and inspiring) Cedar Revolution which booted Syrian troops out of the country last year, following the final Israeli withdrawal in 2000. The PLO had been kicked out by the 1982 Israeli invasion, and the various sectarian militias which had fought the civil war had mostly been reintegrated into a fragile power-sharing agreement between the various groups, but one militia had remained mostly aloof from the developing stability: Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s roots, although strictly Shia Muslim, lay not so much in fighting other groups in Lebanon as in fighting the Israeli occupation of the south of the country, and as a result it received both international backing – primarily from Syria, which hated Israel, and (foundationally) Iran, which hated Israel too but also shared the group’s radical Shia ideology – and impressive local loyalty, derived both from patriotic fervour and gratitude for the group’s provision of social services.

Hezbollah never disarmed, and has been firing rockets into Israel at periodic intervals ever since the Israeli withdrawal, which it was quick to claim credit for. (The origins of the decision to withdraw were probably more to do with “pull” factors within Israel – particularly Ehud Barak’s political agenda – than the pinprick “push” factors in Lebanon, however.) Yet its actions last week – darting into Israel to ambush a patrol and kidnap two Israeli soldiers – represent a new type of aggressive tactic that is somewhat puzzling purely in the Lebanese context. The response to the kidnapping has been as vicious as it was predictable, and no Western power has really urged restraint on Israel. Why would Hezbollah bring this terrible onslaught upon itself, and upon the people of Lebanon?

The answer to this quandary can be found in the unscripted conversation between American President George W. Bush and British PM Tony Blair on Monday during lunch at the G8. Unaware that his words were being picked up by a microphone, Bush said that the way to end the crisis was for “Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit”. Somewhat predictably, the press leapt on this, and again predictably, they did so for all the wrong reasons. It was as if the Nixon Tapes in 1974 had never happened. “OMG! The President said the S-Word!” was the general, adolescent tenor of the reaction, somehow failing to notice that the President’s quality of analysis was several orders of magnitude removed from that provided by the press themselves.

The cause of the escalating crisis, as the President correctly identified, lies in Hezbollah’s foreign backers. But the foreign backer to concentrate on is not so much embattled, decrepit Syria as resurgent, confident, and even more embattled Iran. Iran has long used Hezbollah as a thorn in Israel’s side – its leadership’s ideological hatred of Israel is too visceral to be muted by such factors as the lack of a border between the two countries. But now is a particularly opportune time to cause trouble. Iran’s nuclear weapons programme has been focusing global attention for quite some time now, and its divide-and-conquer approach has recently hit a major snag. European diplomacy has provided a package of incentives that Iran will receive if it cooperates, and America has finally loosened its (slightly preposterous) stance of refusal to engage in direct talks with Tehran. (That policy had its origins in the late Carter administration – an era not famed for its foreign policy successes, Carter’s NSA’s awesome name notwithstanding. Henry Kissinger was a very hard act to follow.) At the same time, Russia and China have finally begun to prod Iran towards cooperation.

If Iran were to refuse to accept the package of incentives offered by the Europeans, it might just provide the necessary push that would land the situation in the UN Security Council rather than the IAEA. Although Russian and Chinese vetoes might well preclude the imposition of meaningful UN sanctions, Iran still feels under pressure. Its (I should say alleged - but given its unwillingness to compromise, history of deceit and obvious hostility to Israel, I won't) weapons programme is set to change the regional balance of power, and it has now provoked the coordinated great power backlash that its incendiary rhetoric and clever trade policies had thus far managed to avoid. It is now on the backfoot as it takes time to “consider” the package of incentives, and its interlocutors – the United States especially – are not refraining from tightening the screws ever so slightly by continually calling for a speedy response.

All that pressure has to go somewhere, and unfortunately for the people of Lebanon, Iran’s favoured safety valve is Hezbollah. The timing for Iran could not have been better. Israel is led by a Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, in a rather tight spot politically. Olmert follows in the footsteps of the legendarily hawkish Ariel Sharon, and is currently trying desperately to fill the old man’s boots, to establish credibility on national security for both himself and for his still-fledgling party, Kadima, and to balance a rather fragile coalition in the Knesset (a coalition in which his main ally, the Labour Party, is led by Amir Peretz – currently also Defence Minister – who is keen to establish credibility on national security too). Having been poised to come down like a sack of bricks on Hamas as soon as it showed the slightest sign of using its new control of the Palestinian institutions to attack Israel, the capture of the unfortunate 19-year-old Private Gilad Shalit in the Gaza Strip on June 25th provided all of the excuse that Israel needed.

Having reacted so strongly to the kidnap of one soldier, Israel could hardly sit still and watch as Hezbollah kidnapped another two. Its response was thus entirely predictable. It is, of course, possible that Hezbollah sought merely to open up a front on which it could launch an assault to assist its embattled Palestinian brethren, and the presence of much of the Hamas leadership in Damascus (where they have the ear of President Assad) doubtless led to Syrian encouragement of the kidnapping – and may yet lead to Israeli attacks on Syria. (This isn't the first time that Hezbollah has sought to kidnap members of the IDF.) But the main beneficiary of the crisis is clearly Iran, Hezbollah’s other main sponsor.

The escalating crisis benefits Iran in various ways. Firstly, a timely prod to the hornet’s nest that is Israeli national security serves as a reminder to the rest of the world that it ought not overdo its pressure on Iran over the nuclear issue, given the latter’s capacity to cause trouble throughout the region. Iran’s influence over Hezbollah pales next to the havoc it could cause in Iraq, Afghanistan, and possibly even Central Asia and Pakistan if it so chose. (Prodding Israel is a particularly good warning, given that Iran isn’t actually holding the stick, and thus doesn’t directly suffer the sting of the inevitable response.)

Secondly, Israeli belligerence inevitably provokes outpourings of anger on the “Arab Street” which Iran, as the largest and most powerful country still antagonistic towards Israel, may well benefit from. Persian Iran has always been distrusted intensely by many Arabs, but if there is one unifying force in militant Islam, it is hatred of Israel. Iran particularly stands to benefit from an outpouring of anti-Israeli rage in the Middle East given Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s well-publicised recent and continuing excoriation of Israel as a nation, Zionism as an ideology, and Judaism as a faith.

And lastly, there can be no better argument – whether implicit or explicit – for Iran needing a nuclear deterrent capability than an Israel indiscriminately thrashing around, killing innocents in its neighbours. Israel has nuclear weapons, the argument goes, and is an aggressive power harming its neighbours. Those neighbours thus need a nuclear deterrent too, in order to protect themselves. The argument is patently false, but is entirely plausible. (No other country in the region – or in the world – faces the same unique strategic situation that Israel does by virtue of many of its neighbours renouncing its very right to exist, and Israeli military overreactions are more appropriately understood as a powerful defensive measure than as an example of an imperialistic urge to conquer its neighbours.)

The extremely difficult strategic situation faced by Israel, together with a widespread acknowledgement in the Chanceries of the West of the role played by Hezbollah’s foreign patrons in stoking the current cycle of violence, has contributed to the restrained Western response to Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon. If it continues for much longer, however, expect to see ever-louder calls for restraint and cease-fire, primarily on humanitarian grounds, but also on strategic ones. Israel is being given time at the moment to make its point, and it won’t need much more time to do so effectively. If the conflict continues, however – if Israel decides on invasion to root out Hezbollah, or broadens the conflict to an attack on Syria – expect ever-sharper demands for restraint from the West. America’s Cold War strength of being the only nation able to control Israel – a strength sustained by consistent and unwavering support for Israel in times of conflict - has mutated into a new weakness: horrendously exposed in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Bush faces the prospect of his entire foreign policy going up in flames if he follows the instinctive American response of supporting Israel all the way if Israel decides to elongate, deepen or broaden the incipient conflict. It thus seems unlikely that the conflict will indeed escalate – far too much is at stake for America - which Israel still depends on for its ultimate security - even if Iran does have much to gain from continued conflict.

In the meantime, of course, the victims of all of this are the people of Lebanon, who are dying by the hundreds as a result of Hezbollah’s folly and Israel’s reaction – and thus, indirectly, as a result of Iranian power politics. The hapless Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, is reduced to watching his country – and potentially, the fragile political compromises holding it together – go up in smoke, impotently calling for a ceasefire, unable to commit his state’s official armed forces to protect her citizens for fear of an invasion in reprisal. My sympathy for his predicament knows no bounds, but is still not as great as the sorrow that must be voiced over the plight of the Lebanese. After colonialism, civil war, and occupation, it seems that their travails are still not over; they will continue to die, brutally and pointlessly, their deaths a testament to the strength of the conflicting forces in the region: the defensive paranoia of Tel Aviv, the unconscionable fanaticism and fratricide of Ramallah and Gaza, the reactionary thrashing of Damascus, the rapacious greed, hubris, arrogance, fundamentalism and destabilising folly of Tehran, and the terrible predicament of Washington, as the hole it began digging for itself gets ever deeper and wider of its own accord, with the buried treasure – the holy grail of a democratic, peaceful and stable Middle East – seeming to get further and further away with each passing moment.

 

Fun With Banking

As everyone knows, money is lots of fun – when you have it. Unless you hoard cash in mattresses/under floorboards/in buried chests in the garden, however, the possession of money invariably leads you to encounters with banks, which is very rarely much fun at all. If you have enough money for a bank to be interested in you, you’ll probably end up paying through the nose in fees for the sort of service that they want to give you; on the other hand, if you don’t have enough money for a bank to really be interested, then you may well not get very much service at all.

That said, I’m starting to learn that – if approached in the right way – it is possible to survive encounters with banks without becoming inclined to curl up in a corner of your local identikit-decored branch, gibbering. (You know the spot – in between the huge pile of brochures advertising inventive ways for the bank to rip you off and the life-size cardboard cut-out of the latest mascot. Look closely at the legs of that mascot, in fact, and I guarantee that you will be able to discern gnaw-marks from the last person to give in to the gibber-inclination. Seriously.)

The key, it seems – as with so many things – is to be as friendly as possible. Think you’re having a nightmare dealing with the bank? Imagine working there. The people who exist on the painful side of customer invective are your natural allies, if you can get them on your side. I am only just – finally – coming to realise this properly.

It’s always so much easier to deal with bank people, of course, when you are either (a) getting what you want, or (b) don’t really understand what’s going on but are sufficiently awe-struck at the entire process not to make a fuss about it. The latter was my first banking experience, back in the day, at the Deutsche Bank in Starnberg. I needed a student account to pay holiday work wages into, and had no idea how it worked. The woman I was dealing with switched smoothly into flawless English, and explained it all to me. “Since you’re a student,” she said, “you won’t have to pay any monthly charges or anything.” And that was pretty much it. “What about an overdraft facility?” I asked. She looked at me with a bemused expression. “You’re a student. There is no overdraft facility.” “Oh. Er, any chance of interest?” “No. You’re a student. There is no interest.” “Ah, right.” “We will let you withdraw money from any of our partners around the world with no withdrawal fee, though.”

Oh well, I thought. It won’t be like that in England. I’ll be able to get overdrafts, and interest, and credit cards, and everything! (This was back when everything seemed brighter and cleaner and generally better on the consumer-friendly side of the Channel.) As it turned out, though, that latter part of the Deutsche Bank package meant that I didn’t even need to open a British bank account until my family decided to move back here, at which point I naturally decided to stick with the bank that my grandparents had very kindly opened a savings account for me with, back when I was a toddler. Unfortunately for me, that bank was the Halifax.

At first, all was milk and honey. They told me that I’d definitely be able to get everything that Deutsche Bank hadn’t given me! Overdrafts, interest, credit cards! Well, all of that, except for the interest, anyway. And, as it turned out – after they had already signed me up – except for the overdraft. Oh, and except for the credit card thing, too. They gave me nothing, in fact, that Deutsche Bank didn’t already give me. Except that they didn’t have any of the internationally-useful bits. And their internet banking didn’t work. And their customer service was, in comparison to Deutsche Bank, abominable (which is really saying something).

An awful lot of people that I know have good things to say about the Halifax. I simply can’t imagine why. I hate everything about it, from the purple décor to the stupid uniforms to the indifferent staff to the hugely irritating man (both in his cartoon and real-life iterations) who, along with a bunch of stupid-looking people in those stupid uniforms who sing a stupid song about banking, does all of their promotion. (What a stupid, misguided piece of branding. They’re trying to advertise a bank, not a bloody West End show. It doesn’t even look like a good West End show. It looks stupid. And it is.)

The problem was that I dealt with this badly. I became irritated. I went in once and shouted at them about not having given me any of the things that they’d said they would, ending somewhat forlornly with “… and your internet banking doesn’t work.” The man very calmly went through my list of complaints and succeeded, with great sophistry, in not actually achieving anything apart from setting up a telephone banking account for me, which – naturally – I have never used.

Six months later, I went back in and repeated the litany again. This time, however, I had an ace up my sleeve: at the end of my diatribe, I told the lady triumphantly that if I didn’t get what I was after, I would close my account and take my business elsewhere. After all, it seemed, they ought to be begging me to keep my business with them – me, a soon-to-be graduate in Economics from Oxford, who had managed to get through my student career without getting into debt, who already had a job lined up, and who had already (essentially) run a small business successfully! Imagine my earning potential in twenty years time!

The lady looked at me, nonplussed. It never really occurred me to that even a lifetime earning potential of a million pounds (which I probably don’t have) was diddly-squat next to how much money a bank like Halifax will make in that time. And in any case, if I ever do get that rich, I’d be far more likely to want to carry a card with UBS on it than a little bit of Halifax plastic. “Fine,” she said.

My own arrogance notwithstanding, no company whose response to an angry customer’s threat to take his business elsewhere is “All right, bugger off then” deserves to succeed. So I resolved to take my business elsewhere after all. After a few deep breaths, I also decided to handle things a little differently.

A quick scan of the graduate accounts and loans on offer, a Q&A session with a bank in Oxford, and a receipt of exam results later, I found myself in Barclays Bank’s Stroud branch this afternoon, doing some form filling to open a new account. It was lovely. The two ladies who were handling it for me had never dealt with opening a graduate account before – what that says about Stroud, I’ll leave for you to decide – so we sat there and they riffled through their manuals and called their colleagues in Gloucester, and were generally friendly and helpful and supportive. Even if things don’t go my way, at least – it seems – they’ll be on my side. And at least their décor and branding isn’t quite as stupid as Halifax, nor their staff anything like as indifferent to the customer’s needs.

But I couldn’t quite escape the grip of the big-X completely. A week ago I had gone into Halifax in Stroud to change my address with them to that of my parents, and to ask for a fresh statement to be sent to me as proof of my new address. A week later, the statement arrived – forwarded on from College, where they had sent it. I felt like going in and asking them precisely what part of “I Need This Statement To Prove My NEW Address” they hadn’t understood (because it really wasn’t very hard), but instead I went in quietly and politely, mentioned my urgent appointment that afternoon, treated the lady with respect, and finally got precisely the sort of service that I had long desired.


Monday, July 17, 2006

 

Berlin! (Part 2)

So, back to Berlin. The trip did not actually get off to an auspicious start. My money supply had dribbled to a standstill, forcing me to beg a bit of spending money from my parents. In the frenzy of packing the morning before leaving, I somehow decided that I was going to need four changes of clothes, only to realise upon departure that I was to be away for five days, not four. And furthermore, once I'd locked myself out of the house, I rushed around the corner to the bus stop to realise that my careful reading of the timetable the previous evening had neglected to notice that the 11.23 to Stroud only went on Thursdays. Needless to say, it was not Thursday. It was Wednesday, and it was 11.20: the next bus was at 11.53, and I was locked out of the house. No matter, I thought: I’m going to Berlin! And with that cheery thought, I swung my bag to the ground and sat down on the ground in the mysteriously seat-free bus shelter. I switched on my iPod and took in the beautiful English countryside, appreciating it all the more for knowing that I was finally to be away from it for a few days.

Ten minutes later, I realised that, in the absence of seats, I had sat on an ant’s nest. I leapt up, and was busily cursing the abominable countryside whilst brushing ants off my legs and baggage when a double-decker bus, blissfully independent of the purported schedule on display in the bus shelter, pulled into the stop. Straightening myself out, I inquired as to whether the bus would be calling at Stroud, and upon hearing the reply in the affirmative, I leapt on board.

The pleasantly early arrival of the bus didn’t actually save me much time: the cut-price train tickets to Stansted Airport specified precisely which train I had to be on, and my unwillingness to rely upon the punctuality of rural bus services had caused me to leave plenty of time to get to the train station. I thus ended up with a wait of about an hour and a quarter on the train station platform, even taking into consideration the transfer time from the bus station (bottom of the hill) to the train station (top of the hill). As I watched an earlier service depart Stroud for London, I wondered if the small mountain of magazines that I had brought with me to wile away the travel time would prove to be enough.


As it happened, the British rail network confounded my expectations by running smoothly and punctually, minor delays aside. My cleverly delay-proof itinerary, designed to prevent my being trapped, fuming, in a late train as my connection steamed away without me, ended up trapping me, fuming, on empty station platforms as earlier connections steamed away without me. An hour and a quarter at Stroud, a half-hour at London Liverpool Street, and a good three hours at Stansted Airport conspired to rob me of much of what remains of my youth; my magazine mountain diminished quite precipitously.

This delay was, inevitably, compounded by a further wait once we got onto the plane. I quite enjoy collecting “flight delayed” stories, and some are better than others: I now have a new one to add to my repertoire. Once, returning from The Hague to Munich, the airline shepherded all of us onto the plane and then right back off again, deciding not to use that particular aircraft due to a faulty fuel line that they presumably had known about all along. Even better was the flight from Boston to Washington, DC, which began with a punctual taxi out to the runway with the standard spiel from the pilot: “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Our flight today should be short and will run according to schedule, with the weather in Baltimore partly cloudy and a comfortable seventy degrees.” Minutes later, the plane came to an abrupt stop. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid that our flight is going to be delayed by approximately 45 minutes, due to hurricanes in Baltimore.” I spent the next three hours watching other planes taking off through my window.

On this occasion, however, the problem was slightly more mundane. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid that one of our crew members didn’t make it to work this morning.” Not a problem, surely: after all, crew members on RyanAir do little more than try to sell you overpriced jewellery and electronic gadgets. “We’re going to have to wait for a replacement. She’s in a taxi from Luton Airport as we speak. Departure will be delayed by about ten to fifteen minutes.” Forty-five minutes later, a little black car with a flashing light pulled up alongside our plane, and a harried-looking woman scampered on board to dive right in to the safety demonstrations. Nevertheless, there was a definite thrill when we finally took off, departing England for the first time in far too long.

There was also a thrill in landing in Germany a couple of hours later, and not just as a result of the stunning landing: up in the heavens, the sun was still shining, but the descent back below the clouds brought a sudden rush of darkness to engulf us in the cool of a Prussian summer night. As I excitedly strode into the terminal building, I texted Hanna to say that I was just coming in to collect my baggage, and should be with her in twenty minutes; alas, in my excitement, I had overlooked the inevitable delays of the travel bureaucracy. Time magazine was merrily reporting a couple of weeks previously on how security officials at Berlin Tegel had been happily singing when their correspondent passed through. The two grumpy-looking border guards at Berlin Schönefeld who had been assigned to check passports for an entire planeload of people were not singing. An hour later, I finally emerged from the arrivals terminal clutching my luggage, and looked around for Hanna. My phone buzzed. “You haven’t left without me, have you?” asked the text message plaintively. I peered at the crowd. There she was! “Of course not!” I exclaimed, delighted to finally see her.

It was wonderful to be back in Germany, and even more wonderful to see Hanna. We gossiped and caught up as the tell-tale signs of being back home swung past in the background: the seamless connections between airport, S-Bahn and Trams, the clean and tidy train carriages and stations, the green and leafy streets of the city centre, the clipped yet pleasant German of our fellow passengers. I was by now starving, so when we eventually disembarked our tram in a wide street opposite a shop advertising Döner Kebap, I simply gave into temptation. As I happily munched my Döner – my first proper one in years, though not quite up to scratch next to Munich’s usual fare – en route to Hanna’s apartment, she explained that we were in an area of the city that was in the former East. “It’s quite a rough neighbourhood,” she said apologetically. I looked around me. There were no ominous-looking groups of youths in hoodies gathered in front of run-down shops and houses, sharing private jokes and smoking who-knows-what. In fact, there were no run-down houses at all, and the small number of people walking past looked perfectly respectable. The apartment blocks were clean and without graffiti, looking modern despite clearly dating from Communist days. The cars, parked in between the small but well tended lawns next to the pavement and the wide street, were Hondas and Renaults rather than BMWs and Mercedes, but nevertheless looked clean and new. It was past midnight, yet I felt perfectly safe; much safer, in fact, than I did in broad daylight walking from Archway tube stop in north London to see our new house for the first time. I looked at Hanna and grinned, wondering out loud what a nice neighbourhood must look like.

Hanna’s apartment, on the seventh floor of a university-owned apartment block, was quite spacious, with two comfortable bedrooms, a small kitchen and a pleasant bathroom, all of which was shared with Jo, a slightly withdrawn but friendly Scottish girl who was in the process of moving out. Its characteristically German white plaster walls and smooth floors were slightly austere, but gave off a refreshing impression of cleanliness; at any rate, for €160 a month, it was luxurious. I rapidly finished up my Döner and inflated the air mattress that Hanna produced from a cupboard, excited at the day in town that lay ahead.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

 

Wonderful

The Onion has been doing a retrospective for the last week - this is easily one of the best articles they have ever written. So amusing.

Berlin blog to follow later.

Friday, July 14, 2006

 

Candidate's Log: Finals Results [Ends]

Awoke, sleepily, 1030 hrs. Stretched out in bed for approx. 15 mins. Pondered in great depth the important question of whether it was worth going back to sleep. Decided to remain awake. Rolled over and read latter half of the June 12 issue of The New Yorker (am still attempting to catch up with unread magazines). Eventually rose out of bed, had shower, and read June 19 edition of Time over breakfast cereal and orange juice. After comprehensively reading entire issue, played Mario Kart: Double Dash!! on Nintendo Gamecube with sister for approx. 90 mins. Sister unlocked "mirror" mode - immensely exciting. Eventually got bored & retreated downstairs to consume lunch. After lunch, began to watch film while surfing internet. Decided to call College Office to ascertain precise results of exams.

Outcome is as follows.

Macroeconomics
Median Projection: 53
Mark Achieved: 56.5
Comments: Managed to exceed optimistic estimate - very pleasing. Mark still lies in mid-2.2 range, however. Nevertheless, fully 10 points better than Prelims economics result. Would undoubtedly have been better without panic attack however.

Microeconomics
Median Projection: 60
Mark Achieved: 62
Comments: Exceeded median projection, but not optimistic one. Managed to get into 2.1 territory, however - an excellent achievement. Decision to revise and answer information economics and competition policy no longer seems quite as stupid as it did immediately prior to exam. Good result.

Comparative Government
Median Projection: 60
Mark Achieved: 61.5
Comments: Gut feeling & median projection were essentially correct. Little empirical knowledge was shown on a paper that hadn't been massively well taught or structured: a bit of a deservedly bad mark on a paper I should have been good at.

International Relations
Median Projection: 65
Mark Achieved: 73
Comments: Managed to exceed optimistic estimate: a decent low first! Turns out that defending democratic peace theory and waffling on about ancient Egypt isn't such a bad idea after all.

Comparative Demographic Systems
Median Projection: 57
Mark Achieved: 47.5
Comments: What a disaster! Almost ten points short of my medium projection. Damned math. A high 3rd - my worst exam. I blame Irritating Library Man (who, incidentally, received a 2.2 overall. Hurrah).

International Relations in the Era of the Cold War
Median Projection: 64
Mark Achieved: 64
Comments: Original impression was exactly right: a decent effort (mid-2.1), but really this mark is a bit catastrophic in what ought to have been my strongest subject.

Government and Politics in Western Europe
Median Projection: 63
Mark Achieved: 69
Comments: Quite a wonderful result - tutorial essays in this topic went much worse than in the Cold War paper that I did at the same time. Just shy of a 1st. Turns out that my general knowledge of the Italian party system isn't so bad after all.

International Relations in the Era of Two World Wars:
Median Projection: 65
Mark Achieved: 77.5
Comments: How to do well in an Oxford exam, then: wax lyrical with joy in your heart, and worry not about vacuity. Ask me about the Treaty of Versailles. Go on.

So, overall, that works out to an average of 63.875: a solid 2.1, six points above the threshold for a 2.1 and just four points shy of the threshold for a 1st! Two first class papers, four 2.1 papers, a 2.2 and a 3rd. The range between my best and worst exams - 30 points - is quite spectacular, but luckily it's the overall score that counts. Such a relief!

Will now wind down the Candidate's Logs: what fun they were. It is my intention now to go off and play videogames for several hours. Thank you, and goodbye.

Today's Mood: Hurrah! Now back to sleep.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

 

Berlin! (Part 1)

My friend Hanna and I go way back; all the way back, in fact, to the seventh grade, when she showed up in Munich all fresh-faced and friendly, speaking about three different languages fluently, and already possessed with the curious type of determined innocence - "I may not know you," it goes, "but I'm going to assume that you're a nice person and treat you accordingly" - that wins her so many friends. We drifted apart slightly and had our ups and our downs (the latter mostly my fault), but it was still very sad when she announced - as almost everyone at an international school does, at some point - that she and her family were moving away. It was at the end of the 10th Grade, and her family was following her father's new job to Cambridge, England.

We kept up - the internet and cheap international phone calls are wonderful things - sporadically, and I visited her in Cambridge once or twice. On one of those trips I went into school with her and met various of her friends, among whom were Jenny (later to show up, randomly, on a first-year crew date with some women from Worcester) and Becky (later to show up, even more randomly, as a Biochemist at St John's), who Hanna would come to Oxford every so often to visit, working me in along the way. I thus managed to keep up with her as she started at Warwick studying English and German Literature, and it was on one of these visits that I discovered she would be spending her year abroad at Humboldt University, in Berlin.

I immediately decided that it would be wonderful to go and visit her. Mercifully, she didn't disagree. The only problem was when? She was back in England during most of my holidays, and in any case, I was to spend most of my 3rd year holidays in Oxford working. In term-time I was facing the regular Oxford academic whirlwind, topped up with the Lawsoc presidency in Michaelmas and Finals revision in Hilary and Trinity. It was not a good year to go travelling. Indeed, I failed to go abroad whatsoever between Easter 2005 and June 2006 - easily the longest that I had ever spent in one country before.

That left the period of time after Finals finished, in May, June and July. By a marvellous coincidence, these dates tied in with another summer plan. The football World Cup was to be in Germany in June and July. I don't much care for football - my perception of it, to quote Annette Ackermann's memorable line in Das Wunder von Bern, is of "twenty-four men running around a field kicking a ball" ("It's twenty-two", replies her beleaguered husband) - but for an ardent Germanophile such as myself, the prospect of missing Germany's chance to shine as the eyes of the world turn to it was simply too much to bear. Munich would have been, naturally, my first thought for a destination, but my sole remaining friend there, Una, was to be immersed in exams during the entire world cup period. Berlin in June it had to be, then.

Giving little thought to the minutiae of train travel or finance, I sorted out dates with Hanna and booked a flight to Schoenefeld. As finals rumbled on and the date got closer, it came to be a magical prospect: my itchy feet were raring to get overseas again. It was certainly to be worth the wait.

Friday, July 07, 2006

 

Amusements in Contemporary Politics

Oh dear. President Lech Kaczynski of Poland has pulled out of a Weimar summit meeting with Germany and France citing ill-health - but the real reason, it seems, is that he's been offended by a satirical article in the German Tageszeitung newspaper, which compared him to a potato. (BBC article here, original article here.)

Quite apart from the salience of the comparison - which, given that one of President Kaczynski's party's coalition parties, Samoobrona, first came to prominence as a reactionary populist grouping famed for throwing potatos, is greater than one might imagine - this is something of a worrying sign. Polish politics is dominated since last year's election by two centre-right parties, the conservative Law and Justice party, and the more liberal Civic Platform. President Kaczynski hails from Law and Justice, and, despite having the technocratic Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz made Prime Minister in preference to his twin brother Jaroslaw (that would have been ever so slightly weird - identical twins as President and PM), his prickly nationalism has been apparent for quite a while both in terms of relations within the EU (entry into which his party opposed) and outside it, as well as in its choice of coalition partners.

Polish relations with Russia have been understandably strained, with antagonistic nationalism on both sides poisoning relations quite extensively - not that they really need poisoning, with most of the former Soviet satellite states understandably terrified of Putin's increasingly nationalistic Russia. Germany is something of a different matter, however, and most of the antagonism in the German-Polish relationship post-Cold War is definitely originating on the Polish side. The potato-unfriendly President Kaczynski has not been particularly diplomatic in his comments on his Teutonic neighbour, repeatedly claiming that all that he knows about Germany is the spittoon in the gents at Frankfurt airport. His description of the plan for a new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany through the Baltic to a new Molotov-Ribbentrop pact raised eyebrows across Europe.

The group of eight former Polish foreign ministers who wrote an open letter criticising President Kaczynski's decision to drop out of the summit meeting were thus surely correct in their critique. Being made fun of abroad is part of the price of being a statesman of international stature, and behaving like a statesman of international stature involves ignoring it. (Consider George W. Bush, who President Kaczynski admires: he's had to put up with quite a lot worse than the potato comparison. (He has, however, also been subject to potato comparisons, just in case you were wondering.)) Taking out frustration with the German press on the German and French governments also comes across as curiously immature, given that the Polish President surely doesn't have the excuse of not understanding the concept of a free press that seemed to be given in relation to the riots in Arab countries after the Danish cartoons fiasco.

Poland lags behind all of the other Central European states who joined the EU in 2004, and would certainly benefit from a little less reactionary nationalism and a little more attention paid to managing the country properly and being a responsible partner for its European allies. What a shame that the more sensible Civic Platform couldn't piece together the coalition majority that its greater share of the vote ought to have entitled it to.

EDIT: I spoke too soon when I said it would be too weird to have PM & President as brothers...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

 

Early Creativity

My mother was just digging through some of her old poetry, and happened across a masterpiece by yours truly. It goes:


Under the sea
swimming along
in the water
an octopong.

This is, she tells me, very sophisticated. I'm not entirely convinced, but then again, I suppose I was only three when I wrote it. It works better with the attached picture of the octopong, but alas, I don't have a scanner, so you shan't be able to decide for yourselves on that one. If anyone sees fit to come up with their own octopong pic though, I'd be delighted to share it.

In case you were wondering what early childhood in Istanbul in the late 80s was like, well, there's your answer. My other abiding memories seem to be of jellyfish and sheep.

Berlin trip post coming soon.

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