Friday, 14 May 2010

The Red Cross - will be there

“When I needed a neighbour were you there, were you there?
When I needed a neighbour were you there?”

This used to be one of my favourite hymns at school. I loved the idea of global benevolence; the thought that someone could give without judgement and without expecting to receive. I liked to think that was a basic tenet of society and that compassion for one’s fellow man was what raised us above beasts (that and an appreciation of art in all its forms).

When I was a child I joined the Red Cross. My sisters and I (although, strangely not my brother from memory) went to a hall every week and were taught first aid, basic hygiene and survival techniques. Some of the things I learned there – how to find clean water or tie a tourniquet – have never left me.

There were many occasions where we helped make up care-parcels; sometimes we sent hand-knitted socks and scarves to people in cold countries far away; sometimes we sent tins of baked beans and canned fish to the old folk’s home down the road. We laid a wreath at the cenotaph in memory of all the dead soldiers who fought for our freedom and we helped collect money to send to disaster-ravaged communities. The aim of the red cross is to help people in crisis, whoever and wherever they are.

The Red Cross is still one of the charities to which I give money through a monthly donation. I admire their egalitarian principles and their universal humanity. I am not alone – the movement has 97 million volunteers worldwide. As an example of what they do, you can’t go past the ‘Boxing Day Tsunami’ in which aprroximately 230,000 people lost their lives across 14 countries.

Since December 2004, The Red Cross has built over 51,000 homes, 289 hospitals and clinics, and 161 schools in tsunami-affected areas such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India. Regardless of faith or ethnicity, over 680,000 people now have access to an improved water source, 340,000 people have access to improved waste management facilities, and over 277,000 people have been certified or skilled in community-based first aid and psychosocial support.

Whether they are providing transport to make sure elderly patients keep their hospital appointments on the Kapiti Coast, providing facilities to collect essential blood donations, or providing shelter to those devastated by earthquake in Haiti, Red Cross volunteers are donating their time and skills to help those less fortunate than themselves. I don’t know about you, but to me that’s a credo worth following.

"Wherever you travel I'll be there, I'll be there,
Wherever you travel I'll be there.
And the creed and the colour and the name won't matter, I'll be there."

If you want to make a difference, start by making a donation.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Books read in December

Below are short reviews of the books that I read in December 2009. The numbers in the brackets are the marks I have given them out of five.

Life Stories – David Attenborough (4)
In 2009 BBC4 asked Sir David Attenborough to do a series of weekly talks on the radio. They were to last for ten minutes and be on any topic he chose. The results are gathered in this book which ranges over a host of subjects from various mammals, reptiles, plants, insects and birds. While it would be nice to hear his voice (and there is an audio version available) this book has illustrations, botanic sketches and photographs which enhance it in another dimension.

The book contains both interesting facts and well-written, amusing anecdotes. He relates myths that local cultures have been used to explain the presence of certain mammals, while content to admit that he doesn’t know all the answers himself. He is curious as to why humans have eyebrows or why we sing, as it serves no specific evolutionary purpose, and part of his love of life on earth is the constant search for knowledge. Curiosities and missing links hold great appeal for him and several of the chapters are concerned with extinct animals and fossils.

I grew up with David Attenborough’s nature shows on television. He was part of my childhood; simultaneously comforting, reassuring and educational. He’s an extremely likeable man and part of this appeal is that he shares his enthusiasm for natural history in a charming and accessible manner. His warmth, humour and sense of childlike wonder come through in this collection that reminds us we are privileged to share his life stories.

Hungry Hearts and Other Stories – Anzia Yezierska (3.7)
In this series of interconnecting short stories, Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia come to America in the early 1900s with dreams of education, marriage and bettering themselves. They hunger for love, friendship, and self-improvement. Everyone hopes for a brighter future, leaving a life of poverty and repression behind, believing that America will be a panacea and right all past wrongs.

They are inspired by thoughts of freedom and democracy, is supposed to make everyone equal, but only if they have money. Of course, when the dreams confront reality, there is bound to be disappointment. Some struggle with the lack of community and the individualism that the supposed meritocracy creates. The immigrant story is one of steerage ships, sweatshops, unscrupulous landlords and bosses, keenly felt injustice, “dreams and the battle for bread”.

There are contradictions at every turn. America is the land of the free where people dream and hope, but it is also the land of rising food prices and crushing rents. Those without money have to accept charity often at the expense of their pride and dignity. In America you can lose your past and reinvent yourself, but the converse of this is that heritage is discarded. Can you have it both ways? There is further conflict with the next generation as they try to escape the past that defines them and, in doing so, reject their parents.

Education is a major theme among these stories, as many of the characters seek to ‘work themselves up’ and there is evident respect for teachers and men (and women) of learning. Anzia Yezierska writes in New York Jewish idioms and captures the voice of “my own people”. This collection was originally published in 1920 and Yezierska achieved great success when the book was snapped up by Sam Goldwyn and became a silent film. She was feted with an extravagant lifestyle but she missed her roots and fell from popularity during the Depression years, only to be rediscovered during the feminist 80s and Virago publishing. (I couldn't find a picture of that jacket, so I've used the Penguin one instead.)

Imperial Life in the Emerald City – Rajiv Chandrasekaran (4.1)
Rajiv Chandrasekaran spent two years (2002 – 2004) reporting in Iraq for The Washington Post on the 15-month American-led occupation of the country. To his mind, it was ill-conceived, badly-run and deeply unsuccessful. Jerry Bremer, the president of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was the viceroy of Baghdad who “had come to Iraq to build not just a democracy but a free market. He insisted that economic reform and political reform were intertwined.”

The CPA tried to rule Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein from the Green Zone, a bubble of Americana with American restaurants, bars, swimming pools, offices, convention centres and a hospital. Because so many hotels had been destroyed, the Americans moved into the Republican Palace, Saddam’s former home. They were removed from reality of the place they were trying to rebuild and few of them spoke the language or even met any Iraqis.

There were problems with priorities – what to do first? The schools and hospitals were in a terrible state, the factories and utilities were under-producing, and the economy was suffering. The CPA concentrated on traffic law, purging the country of the Saddam-supporting Baath party, and dissolving the security forces. When the Iraq army was reformed, many soldiers didn’t join but became insurgents instead because they felt they had been disrespected. Many of those who did join refused to fight insurgents in the streets because they believed in their principles and didn’t agree with the American orders.

The similarities between the Americans and Saddam are mentioned often. In Saddam’s regime, “Contracts were given to firms in countries supportive of Saddam instead of to suppliers who provided the best price or quality.” In Bush’s regime people were given jobs not because they had qualifications but because they were in with the right crowd. But the major differences were ideological. The Bush administration favoured privatisation, and the Iraqi people were against privatisation of government-owned enterprises. Bremer worried that popularly elected Iraqis might not produce a document “that endorsed a separation of mosque and state, provided equal rights for women, or enshrined any of the other elements sought by the White House, which wanted to be able to point to Iraq as a model of enlightened democracy in the Arab world.” So he controlled the way the elections were run. Capitalism and democracy were the main things the Americans wanted to achieve in Iraq, whereas the ordinary Iraqis wanted public order, safety, and basic utilities.

Chandrasekaran writes well and intelligently, creating what Richard Eyre in the Guardian calls, “a tragic tale of naivety, hubris, waste and wilful ignorance.”

Chocolate Quake – Nancy Fairbanks (2.3)
I quite enjoyed Crime Brûlée, which is another in this culinary crime series, and thought this might be interesting as it is set in San Francisco. It is pretty poor, however with no real feel or flavour of the city and the detective story is messy, uninteresting and riddled with errors, while the characters are clichés.

When Carolyn Blue arrives in town with her husband Jason, for a scientific conference, she phones her mother-in-law, only to find that she has been arrested for a murder at the women’s centre where she works. Jason does nothing to help his mother except to hire a private detective, Sam, to try and exonerate her. Carolyn immediately gets to work solving the murder with the help of the gay motorbike-riding Sam. There are way too many subjects to make this a clean story, and Carolyn bumbles about interviewing them with ridiculous ease and even finding the murder weapon, which the police had overlooked, in a drawer at the centre.

There are glaringly obvious errors in the narrative and the characterisation is sketchy and clichéd. This is not a good detective story and the culinary angle is far from sharp either. Even the description of the city is tacked on and echoes a tourist brochure rather than providing any insights. The hackneyed descriptions of earthquake tremors, hilly streets and the gay scene are pretty unpalatable and I doubt I will bother with any more of her stories.

Run for Home – Sheila Quigley (1.5)
This novel is set in a rough area of Sunderland, complete with regional dialect, swearing, drugs, human trafficking, organised crime and title from a Lindisfarne song. However, it is completely unrealistic with a terrible plot, unbelievable dialogue and woeful lack of characterisation. Quigley often resorts to telling rather than showing us what is going on.

The morals and attitudes are so traditional as to be reactionary with rants about drugs, homosexuality and the white slave trade. It sounds as if written by an over-earnest teenager or a middle-aged mother trying to be contemporary.

The story is hackneyed and predictable. The ‘baddies’ have in-depth discussions about their criminal past and future plans in front of others, which is not only convenient but totally unrealistic. The older children investigate their sister’s disappearance, finding out far more than the local constabulary, and the police are ever so impressed with their efforts. The coppers turn up to save the day just in the nick of time and even say, “Good going, kids.” It’s like something out of The Famous Five, but not as engaging.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon – Richard Zimler (3.8)
Richard Zimler was described by The Spectator as the American Umberto Eco, and with this murder mystery, complete with religious overtones, clues, symbols and illustrated manuscripts, he assumes the mantle with aplomb. The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is partly an intriguing murder mystery with an historic background, and partly a novel that examines the nature of faith, and it weaves these threads so tightly together that they are indissoluble.

Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and many fled to Portugal, where the King forced them to convert to Christianity and become ‘New Christians’, to distinguish them from ‘Old Christians’, although many risked their lives by practicing their faith in private. Nine years later a violent riot turned into a massacre as the Old Christians burned the New in an attempt to appease God who had sent drought and plague to the city of Lisbon. Berekiah Zarco, one of the ‘New Christians’ is sent on an errand by his uncle Abraham (a master of Kabbalah) and returns to find him dead in the cellar next to a naked woman – also dead. The cellar, whose existence is known only to the secret prayer group, is locked from the inside causing Berekiah to believe they have been betrayed by a close friend. He sets out to solve the crime and avenge his uncle’s murder, but as he examines the facts he learns more about his uncle and himself.

His uncle taught him to illustrate manuscripts and he now learns that people are willing to sacrifice their lives to smuggle these books out of the country so that their faith can spread and their narratives be told. A people is the sum of their stories, and this is a novel of faith and of storytelling – who has the right to tell the story and which version do you believe? It seems almost natural that Berekiah would begin to question his faith. How could anyone retain it in the face of such horror? Without the assistance of his master he must become self-reliant and he chooses to fight for survival through words. Some of the semantic subtleties are lost in the translation (the novel was first published in Portuguese) which is a shame because language and words play an important role in the passing on of stories and faith.

Although at times the novel lacks soul and is in danger of becoming a mere riddle, Zimler maintains the intrigue to the end. It is almost too clever and is slightly pedantic as though the beauty of the illuminations is merely decoration for the dusty contents. You have to concentrate, like one of those magic eye pictures which seem impenetrable at first until the image burns itself on your retina. The question is, whether you have the patience to refocus.