Clash of Religions

“Hello, excuse me, is this the Buddhist Meditation class?”

“No I’m afraid not. This is the Christian meditation class.”

“Oh dear. We thought this was the Buddhist Meditation class.”

“This is St Columba’s church hall. What you want is St Columbas-by-the-Castle church hall, next door.”

“Ah I see. How do we get there?”

“Turn right out of here, up the steps, and it’s on your left.”

“Thank you very much, sorry to intrude.”

“You’re welcome, think nothing of it. Have a nice time.”

“God bless you.”

Does my RSS feed work

I wonder if anyone subscribes to my site via RSS? If so, I would appreciate a confirmation (in the comments or otherwise) that it is indeed working. In the past few days I have come to suspect that maybe it is malfunctioning.

Many thanks in advance.

As the comments prove, it does indeed seem to be working. Many thanks again!

Randoll Coate – Labyrinthologist


LILY: What? What? (SHE GOES TO HIM) Go on. Try again. “Do I…”?

ARCHITECT: … have enough faith to design in yew?


LILY: Design what in who?

GARDENER: Well sir. What I think: Up to you.


ARCHITECT (IGNORING HER): You have to wait so long for yew.

GARDENER: Worth it.


ARCHITECT: In the end. But you’re never there to see it.

GARDENER: Takes a deal of philosophy.

SHOWMAN: Just a dash of imagination! Look.

– Judith Adams, Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden

I read with interest the obituaries of Randall Coate, who died in France, on 2nd December. A very good innings at 96, he seems to have lead one of those polymath lives that the obituary writers love so well. A spell at Oxford, a medalled war, a lengthy service in the foreign office, followed by a prolific career as a maze designer. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a friend of Jorge Luis Borges (whose collection of stories, Labyrinths, I have been extorting Biodun to read).

By far the best of the obituaries on Coate, is the one published in The Independent. This is undoubtedly because it is by Coate’s colleague and fellow Labyrinthologist, Adrian Fisher. The link inconveniently moves in to the premium section after three days, so here are the choice quotes:

He furthered the maze as a valid form of landscape art more than anyone had previously done. His maze designs abound with symbolism, from their outline shape and the internal patterns of paths and barriers, to numbers and proportions, hidden meanings, verbal allusions and puns.

His seventh rule [of Maze Design] stated: “Do not allow the cost of the maze to cloud your enjoyment of a creation which will bring pleasure to young and old for generations to come. You will have given our world of harsh reality and mindless speed a timeless oasis, a leisurely paradise, the substance of a dream.”

Moulded by the war, and allowed the luxury of travel through a world still under the influence of a waning empire. He seems the archetype of the sincere and unselfconscious intellectual, of the kind that does not seem to emerge any more. Even his name, Randoll Coate, seems to be from an age that has come to an end, replaced (as he predicts) by a world of commodified celebrities, and mindless speed.

Hoarding Magazines

Where does all this paper come from? Like Clive, I’ve being doing a spot of housekeeping – collecting together the vast piles of paper that have accumulated since I moved into my flat just over a year ago. From under the bed comes reams of catalogues, special offers and charitable calls to action that have fallen out of magazines and newspapers. Appallingly, I found a few New Statesman issues still mint in their polyethene wrapper, along with October’s National Geographic. They deliver their publications in a coarse brown packet, as if the journal has been despatched from some far flung part of the orient, rather than Surrey.

I’ve consolidated. No longer do magazines litter each corner of each room. Now, the copies of the New Statesman, a few random Prosepects, and a stray Spectator sit together in just one corner of one room, in one big and unmanageable tower. I still have several cuttings from The Times, and a couple of special reports from the Independent to file.

The packaging and loose adverts have been recycled, but I feel I should keep a hold of the magazines themselves. I do this not because I harbour some preposterous notion that I will, one day, actually go back and read what I have missed, but rather because I feel as if I am creating for myself a form of reference library. One of these days, I do not doubt that Ziaduinn Sardar’s analysis of progressive Islam will be useful to me in some way…. if I can remember in which magazine it was published.

This hoarding betrays an egotistical desire to be ‘well read’. The gentleman scholar. Of course, in the 21st century this appetite can never be satisfied, as the sheer volume of data exceeds an individual’s capacity to take it all in, even if the RSS bookmarks are all in order. Yet still I worry if I have spent a day without reading a newspaper, and the idea of cancelling a subscription to something is a heresy.

At the moment I am reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. He tells the story of a conspiracy in a medieval monastary, the clues to the mystery held within the pages of ancient texts, buried in the depths of a labyrinthal library. In his later book, Focault’s Pendulum, the characters take the connection of ideas to an extreme, constructing wild conspiracy theories from the most disparate sources. Both books a riddled with quotation and historical allusion, a style that John Updike once described as a permenant ‘orgy of citation and paraphrase’. It’s not clear whether Updike considers this a compliment, but I enjoy Eco’s work for this very reason. Thinking laterally and connecting ideas is part of the fun of reading and writing. The more you read, the more connections you can make, the more ideas you can have.

Dalry Road

Two odd sights. The first was me running (nay, sprinting) down Edinburgh’s Dalry Road at 5:28pm, in the desperate hope of buying four male-to-female 2 metre VGA cables. The second was the fact I was blocked from entering Maplin Electronics by a procession of policemen and horses, escorting despondent Kilmarnock fans back to Haymarket station. I do not know whether it was them or the Hearts fans who were threatening trouble, or whether that sort of close protection is standard for a Saturday afternoon.

Whether it is the creation of a ridiculously complex video playout system, or the communal viewing of a ball being kicked around a field, we humans take our leisure time very seriously.

Arsenal 4-0 Portsmouth

Ah, the great British game!

Arsenal Players in Purple ShirtsWe began in North London with a cappuccino from the bagel counter, and settled in to watch Lehmann from Germany, Lauren from Cameroon, Campbell from England, Toure and Eboue from Ivory Coast, Frenchmen Cygan, Pires, Henry and Flamini, Gilberto from Brazil, Fabregas and Reyes from Spain, and Bergkamp from Holland. They played against Ashdown, Griffin, Taylor and O’Brien from England, Priske from Denmark, Vignal from France, Cisse from Senegal, Vukic from Senegal, Todorov from Bulgaria, Viafara from Columbia, Hughes from Scotland, Skopelitis from Greece, LuaLua from the Congo, and Mornar from Croatia.

Despite all this hot international talent, we still froze our bollocks off.

Encountering the 'Submerged'

Last Monday I had cause to be working in Glasgow, in a theatre just south of the Clyde. At the end of the day, I planned to take a train back to the city centre. I arrived at the station ten minutes after someone had committed suicide, jumping onto the tracks. The police and ambulance had arrived moments before me, and had not yet been able to remove the body. He lay there, lifeless and nameless like a mannequin. All last week I searched all the news media for an account of what happened, but there was nothing.

With no chance of a train, the tube was a better option, and I was soon in the city centre once more. Just outside Queen Street station, I met a man with a red face and no teeth selling the Big Issue magazine. The magazine was giving away some free post-cards, so I bought his last copy. I had intended to send a postcard to some friends I had stayed with over the weekend, but they turned out to be a promotional pack for Amnesty International, who are running a campaign of awareness of domestic violence. Did you know that on average a woman is assaulted 35 times before she seeks help from outside authorities, and that every day two women are killed by a current or former partner?

Not for the first time, a doctor friend was telling me today about the evidence of domestic abuse she sees in hospital. She told me stories of young women who conceal pregancies from violent partners or disapproving parents. Others manage to live for months without even realising they are pregnant. They arrive in the hospital with pains, and despite not menstruating and the appearance of a huge, baby shaped lump in their abdomen, they insist that they cannot be pregnant. They only have to wait a month before unwelcome contractions prove them wrong.

Surely the biological facts of the matter are so obvious as to be unmistakeable? Apparently not, said my friend. For social or religious reasons, some live in denial, scared to admit even to themselves a fact that would bring shame upon them. Others have a more clinical mind-block, a psycological refusal to see the truth in a manner similar to anorexia.

I think these are relevant digressions, because they are all examples of someone so far removed from our own daily lives, that they could be living in another country. And yet we all live in the same country. Men so sad they will jump in front of a train; men without teeth or a roof over their heads; women suffering and dying in silence, unnoticed; and girls so illiterate they do not understand what will happen if they have unprotected sex. I am reminded of a passage in Fergal Keane’s book A Stranger’s Eye (2000), where talks of the ‘submerged’, people, those whose lives are so far removed from the rest of the country, that they seem to no longer undersatnd us, nor we them:

For a few weeks in a Leeds courtroom, the story of her life and death illuminated a parellel universe in which young men, women and children lived not so much on the wrong side of the tracks, but far below the surface of the nation. Submerged. The majority did not end up killing or engaging in senseless violence, nor could they in any sense be said to inhabit the same moral universe as those who murdered Anglea Pearce.

But they did live in a submerged world. It was there all around us, in every city in the country, a world of unexplained departures and missed connections, a great, quiet tradgedy that went stalking down the generations. When it spilled onto our front pages – a child dead from neglect or cruelty, a frightening drug statistic – we took notice, we were shocked. But the waves always closed over and the underwater silence resumed.

Elegance and clarity

I really don’t know what all the fuss was about.

Say five people go to a weekend music festival together. At various times during the weekend, they pay for groceries and travel expenses. R pays £3 for margerine, £3 for electricity, totalling £6. L pays £17.50 for some groceries. E spends £10 in the shop and another £2 for some communal painkillers to ease hangovers, a total of £12. K spends £7.50 on groceries and £6 on electricity cards, which totals £13.50. S pays for car hire at £113 for the weekend, then £18 for parking, £15 on petrol, and £54 on groceries, a total of £200 exactly.

That means we’ve spent £249 in total, or £49.80 each.

If S has paid £200 but owes £49.80, she is due £150.20 from the other four. However, K and E foolishly gave her £3 each, and R has already handed over £5 early in the proceedings, so really S only needs £139.20. Since K has already spent £13.50, he should contribute another £36.30, £3 of which he has already paid. £33.30 is still due. Since E has paid £12 already, plus another £3 to S, only £34.80 of her £49.80 share is due. Likewise, L has already paid £17.50 of his equal share, so he still needs to pay £32.30. R has only made purchases of £6, but since he has already paid £5 to S he now owes £38.80 to the group.

Since S is owed money, the other four should pay her back. £139.20 divided by four is £34.80 owed to S by each of the other members. By luck, this is exactly what E owed to the group anyway, so now both S and E are ‘quits’ with the group. This just leaves K, L and R. Since K only owed £33.30 in the first place, his paying over £34.80 to S leaves him £1.50 short. By a similar calculation, L only owed £32.30, so paying £34.80 to S left him £2.50 out of pocket. All is not lost however, because although R owed a total of £38.80 to the group, he only paid S £34.80 of that sum. R therefore has £4 outstanding to the group, which K and L can split between them.

To summarize, everyone pays S £34.80, and R pays supplements of £1.50 to K and £2.50 to L. Simple.

Cartoon by Sidney Harris.
Cartoon by Sidney Harris.

Captive Market

We’re cruising at 36,000 feet, the two o’clock EasyJet flight back to Edinburgh. The flight is smooth, the cloud-speckled landscape beautiful, and I am suddenly a festering, miserable bastard.

Over the tannoy, the pre-pubescent ‘Flight Customer Services Representative’ (or whatever the stewards call themselves these days) invades my airspace with adverts for Harry Potter Top Trumps. Not any old Top Trumps, by the way, but the very latest Goblet of Fire editon. You simply cannot get these in the shops. You can also buy the perfume endorsed by Sarah Jessica Parker…

As with departure lounges, in-flight shops are so insidious because there really is no escape. You cannot ring the bell, ask to get off, then simply get the next pplane, five minutes later. The steward’s voice makes it worse: not because the camp mockney accent contrasts so starkly with the refined tones of the RP you still hear on other airlines; but because he is simply inarticulate and crass. “Stick this in yer gob, you’ll love it!”. Proper diction and a sense of decorum should not be commodities that can be cut back.

When you book with a low cost airline, you should not expect all the frills. The lack of free coffee and snacks has even been expunged from the BMI flights too, so the dry and barren atmosphere is not a bother. But there is a difference between being given no extras, and being subjected to the constant onslaught of Opportunities To Buy. If this stealth commerce is the only way EasyJet can compete, then they could at least do me the courtesy of not wishing me a peaceful flight at the plane takes off. With the drone of the cabin crew’s constant sales patter, peace and quiet is clearly not high on their agenda.

Now, if they had the wit to tell a few jokes or sing a song, they might win their way back to my heart. Writing in The Independent, John Walsh laments the disappearance of bus conductors, now the old Routemasters have been all but phased out in London. We read of the conductors acting as bouncers, bodyguards, rappers, crooners and other entertainers, and even lectures on ettiquette! On the bus, there was no need to pay a premium – these unexpected extras were provided free as part of the ‘no frills’ service. And with an old Routemaster Bus, you could jump on and off the back if you needed to escape. Now the bendy buses are snaking their way through London, bus passengers are yet another imprisoned market for crass, on-board advertising opportunities. Watch this space.