Deluxe refugee

I’m stuck in Amsterdam, already delayed by 30 hours. It’s snowing hard, and I’m not optimistic that I will get home tomorrow. I’ve not suffered at all, but the experience has given me the tiniest glimpse of what it might be like to be a refugee with uncertainty, lack of information, crowds, queues, discomfort, and being a second class person.

I had my first signal of what was to come on Saturday night when I left a jolly meal in an Ethiopian restaurant. There was light snow, and I had a message on my phone from British Airways telling me my flight the next morning was cancelled. I had to ring them to be rebooked. The friendly woman told me she’d try to get me on a slightly later flight and ring me back in five minutes. She didn’t ring. When I rang again a man told me that I was now booked on a flight at six in the evening, eight hours after my original flight.

It began to snow the next morning, but the hotel kindly let me check out at 2 pm rather than noon. I got lots of work done, although I discover today on my iPad that I’ve lost two hours of work. At 2pm I trudged and slid to the station through snow and slush, surprised that no grit or salt had been put onto busy walkways. At the station I saw that many trains were cancelled and unusually couldn’t see a train to the airport. I joined a queue of about 10 people to learn when the next train would be. It was 30 minutes away compared with the usual 10. I paced up and down to keep warm and then joined a big crowd making for the train to the airport. Would we all get on, I wondered. We did. It was no worse than the Northern Line in the rush hour.

At the airport I saw that many flights were cancelled, mine among them. I went to look for help and found enormous queues everywhere. Some, I heard later, queued for six hours to be told that nothing could be done. I wasn’t sure which queue to join, so tried ringing British Airways but couldn’t get through. I was lucky in that I accosted a British Airways staff person, who took me to the front of a queue and handed me over to a harassed woman under a British Airways sign. She began to search for a flight for the next day but told me there was nothing. “What about a hotel?” I asked. She shrugged, but a man beside her stepped in, got me booked on a flight the next day, and booked me into a hotel. Looking at the huge queues around me I felt very lucky.

I felt less lucky when I encountered the large crowd waiting in a snowstorm for a shuttle bus to the hotel. We waited perhaps 15 minutes for a bus and then pushed on when one came. It was crowded and chaotic, but most people seemed to get on. Some people had mobility problems, some children, and some heavy cases. Some, I imagined, must be facing much more disruption than me: lost long-haul flights, crucial appointments missed, and sleeping in the airport.

Soon after I arrived in my hotel my flight for the next day was cancelled. I tried ringing and either couldn’t get through or was immediately cut off. The website told me that I was confirmed on both of the flights that I knew were cancelled. I tried various times to ring British Airways or get information through its website, but I got no joy from either. That’s continued to be the case for 24 hours. British Airways, it seems, has abandoned me. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I began to look at other airlines, no joy, and trains. I could not get a train on Monday, but I might, it seemed, on Tuesday.

I went to bed on Sunday night not knowing how I might get home but thinking I’d have to do something in the morning. Before I went to bed I went for a drink and a meal. “How will you pay?” asked the woman pouring a beer.

“Can I put it on my room?”

“Are you a delayed passenger?”


“Well, you must pay cash then.”

When I went for dinner, having studied the menu, I was asked for the token I’d been given. “Over that side of the room for delayed passengers and have the buffet,” said the waiter. The buffet was limited and unappetising, and our tables had no candles or cruets.

In the morning I spent time trying to contact British Airways and searching for flights on other airlines, but all to no avail. Deciding I must act, I booked a train ticket and a hotel room, the two costing me over £400. I’m lucky to have such money and the option of a train. The bar downstairs is filled with people who can’t go by train, endlessly scrolling through their mobile phones, hoping for something to come up.

Meanwhile, the snow falls.

I’m not having to cross the Mediterranean in a small boot, and I’m not penniless, hungry, and cold; and I’m trying to get home not flee a tyrant. But all this has taught me something. We are all only one step from disaster.


Montaigne and the Sandarbans

Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher, argued that the  way to deal with death is not to try and push it out of your mind but to think about it all the time–“Be booted, spurred, and ready to go.” If Amitav Ghosh’s marvellous novel The Hungry Tide is to be believed the women of the Sundarbans thought the same.

The Sundarbans are area huge area of some 10 000 square kilometres filled with tidal rivers, mangrove forest, and some habitable islands where the Ganges and Brahmaputra meet the Bay of Bengal.  Some 200 miles across and 300 miles deep, they lie partly in India and partly in Bangladesh. There forest and waters are (or were) infested by tigers, crocodiles, snakes, and other dangerous fauna.

The Hungry Tide tells the story of a couple from Calcutta who move the southernmost habitable island in the 1950s. The place is poor and life hard. The woman, Nilima, notices that many of the women, even the young ones, wear the white saris that show them to be widows. She learns that the life expectancy of the men is extremely short. They must fish and enter the forests in search of honey and other food, and every day a man is killed by tigers, crocodiles, or snakes.

As Ghosh writes, the assumption of early widowhood “was woven, like a skein of dark wool, into the fabric of their [the women’s] lives.” They married very young and expected to be widows in their 20s; they thought themselves lucky if widowhood was delayed until they were in their 30s. How did they deal with this constant threat of death?

They responded as Montaigne recommended: “when the menfolk went fishing it was the custom for their wives to change into the garments of widowhood. They would put away their marital reds and dress in white saris; they would take off their bangles and wash the vermilion from their heads. It was as though they were trying to hold misfortune at bay by living through it over and over again. Or was it merely a way of preparing themselves for that which they knew to be inevitable?”

Montaigne would have been impressed.


London can still be welcoming

London has a deserved reputation for offering a home to revolutionaries: Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Paine, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Nelson Mandela have all spent time in London. The city has absorbed wave after wave of immigrants: Huguenots (my wife is descended from them), Jews, Germans fleeing the Nazis, West Indians, Bangladeshis, and others. The city has been enriched by all these people and couldn’t be the great city it is without them. That’s why I find the current anti-immigrant sentiment so sad, but this week I’ve been cheered.

I was cheered first by a Tweet from a Jew applauding that he had a Christmas card from the Muslim Mayor of London. Huge numbers of people liked and retweeted the Tweet.

Then on Tuesday I met with my Bangladeshi friend Tasdik Hasan Dip, who has been living in London since September. He is studying mental health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and King’s College. He has a Commonwealth Fellowship, which is a mark of distinction. He had never been in London before, and I asked him how he found it.

I love it, he said. The city is so welcoming. I’ve visited maybe 20 European cities, but London is the best. Unlike in the other cities people meet your eye, they don’t look away. I’ve experienced no discrimination, and everybody is very helpful.

I was a bit surprised, particularly the bit about everybody meting his eye. But what about the tube? I asked.

It’s such a good way to get around, so quick.

Then I asked about his wife. She was at that moment on her way to London. She wears a hijab and was worried she would stand out. He reassured her that she had nothing to worry about: many women in London wear a hijab.

Then I asked about a visa, thinking of the agonies my Mexican daughter–in-law had to go through to get a visa.

She got it in five days. I told her that if she had her passport back in five days she must have been rejected. But she said, no, the visa is there. She is coming with my son, and she is even allowed to work up to 20 hours a week.

I was cheered.

The case for naked politicians

I published the piece below as a blog in the Guardian in 2008. I was reminded of it by seeing the famous picture of Christine Keeler naked but with her naughty bits hidden by a chair on the front page of the Guardian. The picture was there because Keeler died yesterday (I thought she’d been dead for years), and I thought it cheap of the Guardian to put the picture on its front page. Because the picture is both “arty” and historical, the Guardian feels comfortable putting it on its front page. Seeing the picture reminded me of my brother’s version of the picture. I tried to find it but couldn’t. What I did find was a version of the picture of him naked that I’d posted on Facebook years ago. Facebook had reminded me of the picture, but when I tried to post it again Facebook took it down as not allowed.  I wrote a blog about that, which I can’t find, but below is the picture that I did find this time but not last time. I hope that’s clear.

For a top politician you can’t continue in power when you are seen naked,” wrote political analyst Ooi Kee Beng in China Daily in January. He was writing about the former health minister of Malaysia, Chua Soi Lek, who had to resign after featuring in two sex videos which were available on the internet. I don’t want my politicians featuring in sex videos (although I don’t especially mind if no deception is involved) but I’m strongly in favour of naked politicians. Indeed, I’d go as far as to suggest that all politicians give at least one naked press conference before they can be elected and that one session of prime minister’s questions each year should be held with everybody in the room naked, including the policemen.

The besetting sins of politicians are pomposity, horribly overrating their own talent and importance, taking themselves too seriously, oversimplifying complex problems, patronising us and being slippery with the truth. Nakedness is an antidote to all of these. If Robert Mugabe had to stand naked before the people of Zimbabwe and justify his actions he’d be gone in seconds.

Some of the most miserable afternoons of my life were spent sitting in the finance and general purposes committee of the British Medical Association (BMA). The BMA is run by small-time politicians – arguably the worst kind – and the pomposity sucked the air from the room. People took positions based not on what made intellectual or even business sense but rather on accumulating credit for future debates or doing others down for the fun of it. “If only,” I’d sit there thinking, “these people were naked then they wouldn’t be able to keep this up. Reality would intrude. These middle-aged men with their paunches, hairy chests, flabby legs, small penises, and droopy balls (me included) wouldn’t be able to sustain the bullshit.”

It seems unlikely that the finance and general purposes committee of the BMA will ever decide to get naked, but I’ve fantasised about the next best thing. I was the editor of the British Medical Journal – which was why I was at those dreadful meetings – and by tradition I’m having my portrait painted. My portrait might be hung on the walls of the debating chamber among those of long-dead doctors, most of them weighed down with gowns, medals, honours, sad expressions, and diplomas. I’d like to be there -painted ideally (but unaffordably) by Lucian Freud – stark bollock naked with my bits dangling. That would keep them honest.

But nakedness in politicians could do much more than revolutionise BMA committees: it could abolish tyranny. “Nazis,” observes Frederic Raphael in his book Fame and Fortune, “were the only people who always had to be dressed … To be a superman you have to be dressed … Hitler could never be Hitler when he was naked.” I agree.

Could Hitler have ranted at the Nuremberg rallies naked? Of course he couldn’t. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus concurs: “Among the barbarians it is reckoned a deep disgrace, even to a man, to be seen naked.” He doesn’t actually suggest that non-barbarians can cope with being naked, but I take that as read. Shakespeare is also on my side: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy/With old odd ends, stol’n forth of holy writ;/And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Strip the politicians naked and we would see their villainy.

One question naturally arises: “When we choose to have our politicians naked will young women do better than old men?” Well they might, and that would be no bad thing. We’d no longer need positive discrimination. But my bet is that it won’t be the beauty of your body that counts but rather how comfortable you are in your nakedness. I can see Tony Benn stark naked but for his pipe talking quite comfortably. Aneurin Bevan too I can easily imagine naked, but Margaret Thatcher and George Bush no. Maybe nakedness would shift us all to the left – again no bad thing.

But I rest my case on one of the last century’s great insults – Winston Churchill calling Gandhi a “half- naked fakir.” Wasn’t Gandhi the greatest politician of the 20th century, and, come to that, didn’t Churchill (no political slouch himself) receive colleagues while in the bath?

Brian naked

Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day Carpe Diem

A friend thought that I might be interested in this book because of its emphasis on reflecting on death in order to encourage you to seize the day. I downloaded the book and began to read it, and almost before I knew it I’d read the whole book. The author Roman Krznaric has a gift, which is probably essential for any book that will sell well, of illustrating his central thesis with good stories drawn from an impressively wide array of sources.

His central thesis is that carpe diem, seizing the day, is a good way to live your life, although, as you’d expect from somebody with philosophical training, he enters plenty of caveats; the strongest among these is that seizing an opportunity can be profoundly selfish. Another part of his argument is that the ancient philosophy of carpe diem, which first emerged in an ode by Horace, has been hijacked by shopping, planning, watching television, messing around on social media, and his bête noire, mindfulness, which he sees as existing in an inactive, wishy-washy present.

Most of the book is a discussion of the different ways of seizing the day. Krznaric has cleverly captured the arguments in his book into one mandala (see below).

carpe diem mandala

At the centre are what he calls the existential drives–death and freedom. I like that he puts them together. We are because we chose, painful as it may be. “What,” asks the existential psychotherapist Victor Frankl, “is a man? He is a being who continually decides what he is.” Recognising the brevity of life is essential for seizing the day, and Krznaric has devised a death dice that has six thought experiments–the most obvious being imagine you’re on your death bed (“Nobody says I wish I spent more time in the office”) or that this is the last day of your  life. Whenever you become sluggish you should roll the dice and follow the thought experiment that comes up.

Death Dice

The barriers to living spontaneously include death denial, power and inequality, and the bogeys of shopping, watching television, planning (“Can you do next March?”), and mindfulness. But perhaps most important are the psychological barriers: procrastination (“Why put off to tomorrow what you can put off to the day after tomorrow?”); apathy; unwillingness to accept risk; and being overloaded with work, family commitments, daily tasks, and email.

Krznaric  explores five ways of seizing the day. One is to be open to opportunities, recognising and accepting the “offers” that come our way, which we often fail to do. Krznaric sees a place for hedonism–feasting, drinking, sex–but it’s a dangerous route. To be spontaneous, he agues, paradoxically needs constant practice. Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy can improvise so well because they have practised so hard to become such accomplished musicians. Although he’s dismissive of mindfulness, Krznaric does argue for presence as a means of seizing the day. Finally, there is carpe diem politics–mass movements, like Occupy Wall Street, which arrive seemingly spontaneously and incorporate hedonism–clowns, dancing music, fancy dress–into their actions. Krznaric even thinks that carpe diem politics could save the world.

Although I enjoyed the book, I’m not wholly convinced by Krznaric’s arguments, and I fear that I’m not living a very carpe diem life. Since starting the book I’ve spontaneously (and hedonistically) eaten a bacon sandwich in the middle of the morning after already eating one breakfast. I’ve also contemplated leaving at once for the Scilly Isles and to see the Izenheim Altarpiece and going to the Mull of Kintyre for six weeks to write the book I’ve been meaning to write for years, but I haven’t actually done any of these things. Krznaric would not be impressed and would remind me I’ll be dead soon.


Discovering Jasper Johns

I know well Jasper Johns’ pictures of flags and numbers, although I didn’t know he’d done the numbers so skilfully in so many media, but the exhibition at the Royal Academy taught me much more about Johns, including that he and Robert Rauschenberg were lovers, which I didn’t know.

The exhibition starts with three pictures that provide an overview of Johns’ work, one of which is Racing Thoughts, which includes themes, techniques, and images that recur in his work: the cross-hatching, a Mona Lisa that is his homage to Marcel Duchamp, a friend whose work he collected; stencilled lettering; a work by Barnett Newman, another artist he collected; a skull and crossbones; a vase that can seem to be two faces (in this case the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh);  the red, yellow, and blue that were his colours; and a picture of Leo Castelli, the gallerist who first showed his work and worked with him for 40 years. This picture illustrates as well the complexity and intensity of Johns’ paintings; you need to keep looking for a long time and, as he learnt from Duchamp, you, the viewer, complete the work. This is, of course, true of any creation–without a viewer, reader, listener it’s nothing.

racing thoughts

Johns was much concerned with transience, memory, and mortality, and the pictures I’d take home with me would be his large pictures of seasons. The order of the pictures was different in the exhibition than in the picture below: in the picture below spring comes first, but in the exhibition it came last. The exhibition order seems logical in that in summer everything is ordered, but in autumn disorder begins and the ladder breaks; by winter all is chaos and disintegration. The Academy’s commentary made no mention of spring, but it looks as if the rains have come, washing away the snow of winter, and bringing about rebirth. But I can see how spring could come first, soaking the young Johns in experience, allowing him to create the artistic order of summer.


The pictures are also about memory and include much that we associate with Johns: the flag, Mona Lisa, cross-hatching,  the vases, a skull-and-crossbones, and in all of the pictures the arm. The arm is the arm of Hart Crane, the American modernist poet and an inspiration for Johns. His picture Periscope (below) is a tribute to Crane, who went overboard on a boat from Mexico to New York: the last that was seen of him was the arm sticking out from the sea. The word periscope occurs in Crane’s long and magical poem Cape Hatteras .  “A periscope to glimpse what joys or pain/Our eyes can share or answer.”  That is exactly what Johns’ and all paintings are: “ a periscope to glimpse what joys or pain….”


Johns found inspiration in many places and art forms, and I must confess that I found some of the pictures that inspired him stronger than some of the works they inspired. This was particularly true of Johns’ large series of prints called Regrets. They were inspired by a photo that John Deakin took of Lucian Freud for Frances Bacon and was used by Bacon to create a triptych. The photo is damaged, which somehow adds to its effect–and Johns incorporated the damage into his series.


regrets bacon

I was drawn as well by Johns’ picture Between the Clock and the Bed to the original by Edvard Munch. The clock is aging, the bed is death–but also surely sex. Johns’ picture also includes, although it’s almost impossible to see, the falling soldier from Mathias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpice. (Note to self: before I die I must make the journey to Colmar in France to see the altarpiece. Perhaps I should leave now. It wouldn’t be impossible for me to do so.)

clock and bed

Munch self portrait

Falling soldier


Johns could use colour very effectively, as Two Balls, one of his most famous paintings, shows. The picture is a throwback to the Abstract Expressionism that Johns helped replace with his paintings of “things you already know” (flags, numbers, maps of the US, etc). The two balls, an erotic reference, show that the painting is just that–paint on canvas with nothing behind.

two balls

Go the exhibition if you can, although you’ll have to be quick, or if you have only a minute to spare watch the Royal Academy’s 60-second video on Johns.




A 1500 page novel that never seems to disappoint

Vikram Seth mocks himself when he quotes Voltaire before beginning his vast novel: “The secret of being a bore is to say everything.” Twice then within the novel he mocks long novels that get out of control. Yet the vast 19th century scope of A Suitable Boy is central to the great pleasure it gives.

The whole novel is set in India–in three main settings: Calcutta, an imaginary city on the shores of the Ganges which has a building that is clearly the Taj Mahal, and the rural plains of Northern India. All are beautifully but unsentimentally evoked, and there are loving descriptions of gardens, plants, trees, animals, birds, and food. It feels very Indian, with many Hindi, Bengali, and Urdu words.  The relationship between Hindus and Muslims is one of the main themes of the book.

Set in 1951-2 the novel makes many references to Partition but also to the politics of the time. Nehru is referred to often and features as a character. Several of the main characters are politicians, and a national election is one of the main events in the book.

Seth is clearly a lover of poetry, and one of the main characters, presumably based on Seth to some degree, is a poet. Another major character is a student of English, while another is a lecturer in English, giving Seth scope to describe the nastiness and pettiness of academic politics. He quotes many Indian and English poets but also tells many stories from the Hindu mythology.

But the greatest joy of the book is in the characters and their interactions. I found that almost all the predicaments of my life were covered in some way plus many–madness, extreme poverty, religious mania, sexual abuse of children, and attempted murder that I have never experienced first hand. Towards the end of the book I reflected that it hadn’t covered suicide–and then it did.

Despite its size this is a book that many people seem to have read, and I haven’t met anybody who was disappointed.


While reading the book I wrote three blogs about it:


And these are quotes I took from the book, many of them, I note, Seth quoting others.

Mrs Rupa Mehra was one who believed with unformulated but absolute conviction in the paramountcy of subjective over objective truth.

A doctor’s advice:  ‘You are a stupid man. In ten to fifteen days you will be dead. Throw away money if you want to on an operation, it’ll only kill you quicker.’ The stupid patient had been quite upset. It was clear that no one knew how to take or to give advice these days. And no one knew how to discipline their children; that was where all the trouble in the world sprang from.

‘I triumph and rejoice that my action should have obtained your approval; nor am I disturbed when I hear it said that those whom I have sent off alive and free will again bear arms against me; for there is nothing which I so much covet as that I should be like myself, and they like themselves.’

Cicero: “the finest sentence ever written”, said Lord Macaulay


The ifs and buts of history, thought the Nawab Sahib, form an insubstantial if intoxicating diet.

At the moment it feels like a banyan tree.’ ‘I see,’ said Lata, though she didn’t. ‘What I mean is,’ continued Amit, ‘it sprouts, and grows, and spreads, and drops down branches that become trunks or intertwine with other branches. Sometimes branches die. Sometimes the main trunk dies, and the structure is held up by the supporting trunks. When you go to the Botanical Garden you’ll see what I mean. It has its own life—but so do the snakes and birds and bees and lizards and termites that live in it and on it and off it. But then it’s also like the Ganges in its upper, middle and lower courses—including its delta—of course.’

As Byron says, ‘Though women are angels, yet wedlock’s the devil.’

‘Oh You Who Give, don’t give anyone poverty.

Give me death, but do not give misfortune.’


‘Everyone has tragedy,’ he said. ‘But Krishna had joy. The secret of life is to accept. Accept happiness, accept sorrow; accept success, accept failure; accept fame, accept disgrace; accept doubt, even accept the impression of certainty.

‘Finally my homesickness grew too great to resist. . . .

I bow, I bow to my beautiful motherland Bengal!

To your river-banks, to your winds that cool and console;

Your plains, whose dust the sky bends down to kiss;

Your shrouded villages, that are nests of shade and peace;

Your leafy mango-woods, where the herd-boys play;

Your deep ponds, loving and cool as the midnight sky;

Your sweet-hearted women returning home with water;

I tremble in my soul and weep when I call you Mother.’


‘Why, then, is it rumoured that your forthcoming novel—to be set, I understand, in Bengal—is to be so long? More than a thousand pages!’ she exclaimed reproachfully, as if he were personally responsible for the nervous exhaustion of some future dissertationist.

‘Oh, I don’t know how it grew to be so long,’ said Amit. ‘I’m very undisciplined. But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.’