Thursday, August 31, 2006


A work colleague of an in-law has a problem. He has recently married but a relationship with a former girlfriend refuses to go away. He still feels very strongly towards the former girlfriend and has been confiding his dilemma to my in-law.

Anyway, said in-law was discussing the whole tangled affair with his wife a week ago. Unbeknownst to them, their seven-year-old twin daughters were listening in from the next room. Later, one of the daughters asked her mum what Daddy had been talking about. Mum decided the best policy was to explain it all in terms the child would understand. Something like this: "Well, sometimes people fall in love with each other, like your father and I. We fell in love before you were born. When you are lucky, like Mummy and Daddy, you get married and love each other for ever and ever and ever. Then you have two wonderful little girls like you two and you love them and they love you and everybody is happy. But some people are not so lucky. Sometimes their love does not last forever. Or sometimes they can't get married. Sometimes they get married to someone else. And that causes problems. Anyway, Daddy's friend loves his wife but he also loves someone else and that is very confusing for him..."

The seven-year-old rolled her eyes: "Oh Mum, that's one of those triangular relationships. They are happening all the time." And walked off.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Verbs bad

No need


There is a new craze in Japan for pedal powered karaoke at weddings.

Basically, the groom has to pedal an exercise bike which powers the backing music for his bride's karaoke performance. If he flags, she has to continue without backing. All very overloaded with metaphor.

Update: It seems there are a number of other pedal powered innovations waiting for the couple once they have settled into married life. These include:

The food pedalessor

The velocleaner

And, for after the little one arrives:

The Tour de Train Set (tandem model, just in case Mummy is getting complacent)

Finally, to work off all those mince pies, the Christmas bike ride

I think there is a serious side to all this stuff - pointing out the energy we use - but the wedding karaoke idea has been a hit beyond the wholemeal types.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Funeral strippers

I've written about Japanese rural funerals, but it seems a certain type of Chinese rural funeral has rather a lot more going for it. In some parts of the backwoods of that country, it is customary to have strippers at funerals! The authorities don't like it and have set up a "funeral misdeeds" hotline to put a stop to all the lewdness.

Funeral Stripping also seems to be part of the Taiwanese mourning scene and has prompted much scholarly headscratching.

(Incidentally, the photo above is actually of a Taiwanese wedding stripper but, hey, whoever said I was accurate?)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


The Raffles Hotel, Singapore. One of those names with a load of baggage - a great dusty caravan of it borne along by a thousand native bearers, oxen carts, elephants and the odd moustachioed man in a sweaty red coat. I popped in on the way back to Japan yesterday.

After falling into a dribbling postwar dotage, the Raffles was renovated in the late 1980s. The shopping arcades that now swaddle it are standard international hotel stuff. A little regrettable. Mind you, it still has some class. When I presented myself at the Bar and Billiard Room for my Singapore Sling, I was quickly ushered away because I was wearing sandals. I have always followed the sound principle that I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me as a member anyway, so (after rejecting the Long Bar, which seemed to be filled with a most ill-favoured bunch of sandal wearing Billiard Room reject types) I humbly diverted to the delightful courtyard bar and had my Sling. Quite tasty. The picture is of the end of the cocktail after that, a little skew-whiff.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Amartya Sen and Identity

The renowned economist Amartya Sen published an interesting article in the New Statesman a few weeks ago about identity. It asks why it appears to be so easy for formenters of hate to to reduce people from "multidimensional human beings to one-dimensional creatures".

My first exposure to murder occurred when I was 11. This was in 1944, in the communal riots that characterised the last years of the British Raj, which ended in 1947. I saw a profusely bleeding unknown person suddenly stumbling through the gate to our garden, asking for help and a little water. I shouted for my parents, while fetching some water for him. My father rushed him to the hospital, but he died there of his injuries. His name was Kader Mia.

The Hindu-Muslim riots that preceded independence also led the way to the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. The carnage erupted with dramatic suddenness, and it did not spare normally peaceful Bengal. Kader Mia was killed in Dhaka, then the second city (after Calcutta) of undivided Bengal, and which would become, after the partition, the capital of East Pakistan. My father taught at Dhaka University, and we lived in an area called Wari in old Dhaka, not far from the university, in what happened to be a largely Hindu area. Kader Mia was a Muslim, and no other identity was relevant for the vicious Hindu thugs who pounced on him. In that day of rioting, hundreds of Muslims and Hindus were killed by each other, and this would continue to happen day after day.


Over 60 years after Kader Mia's death, as I try to recollect the deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1940s, it is hard to convince myself that those terrible things did actually happen. But even though the communal riots in Bengal were entirely transitory and ephemeral (and the few cases in which riots have been fostered later on in other parts of India do not compare in size and reach with the events of the 1940s), they left in their wake thousands upon thousands of dead Hindus and Muslims. The political instigators who urged the killing (on behalf of what they called "our people") managed to persuade many otherwise peaceable people of both communities to turn into dedicated thugs. They were made to think of themselves only as Hindus or only as Muslims (who must unleash vengeance on "the other community") and as absolutely nothing else: not Indians, not subcontinentals, not Asians, not members of a shared human race.

Even though the vast majority of both communities did not think in those narrowly frenzied terms, too many were suddenly trapped into that vicious mode of thinking, and the more savage among them - often at the troubled ends of each community - were induced to kill "the enemies who kill us" (as they were respectively defined). Many-sided persons were seen, through the hazy lenses of sectarian singularity as having exactly one identity each, linked with religion or, more exactly, religious ethnicity (since being a non-practitioner of one's inherited religion would not give a person any immunity whatever from being attacked).



Sectarian violence across the world today is no less crude, nor less reductionist, than it was 60 years ago. Underlying the coarse brutality, there is also a big conceptual confusion about people's identities, which turns multidimensional human beings into one-dimensional creatures.

Hating people is not easy. Ogden Nash's poem "Plea for Less Malice Toward None" got this just right: "Any kiddie in school can love like a fool,/But hating, my boy, is an art." How does this "art" work? The illusion of singular identity is skilfully cultivated and fomented by the commanders of persecution and carnage. It is not remarkable that generating this illusion would appeal to those who are in the business of fomenting violence. But there is a big question about why the cultivation of singularity is so successful. To see a person exclusively in terms of only one of his or her many identities is a deeply crude intellectual move, and yet, judging from its effectiveness, it is evidently easy to champion and promote.

The martial art of fostering violence draws on some basic instincts and uses them to crowd out the freedom to think and the possibility of composed reasoning. But it also draws on a kind of logic - a fragmentary logic. The specific identity that is separated out for special action is, in most cases, a genuine identity of the person to be recruited: a Hutu is indeed a Hutu, a "Tamil tiger" is clearly a Tamil, a Serb is not an Albanian, and a Gentile German with a mind poisoned by Nazi philosophy is certainly a Gentile German. What is done to turn that sense of self-understanding into a murderous instrument is (1) to ignore the relevance of all other affil iations and associations, and (2) to redefine the demands of the "sole" identity in a particularly belligerent form. This is where the nastiness as well as the conceptual confusions are made to creep in.


Forcing people into boxes of singular identity is a feature also of many of the high theories of cultures and civilisations that are quite influential right now. These theories do not advocate or condone violence - far from it. However, they try to understand human beings not as persons with diverse identities but predominantly as members of one particular social group or community.

For example, civilisational classifiers have often pigeonholed India as a "Hindu civilisation" - a description that, among other things, pays little attention to India's more than 145 million Muslims (not to mention Indian Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Parsees and others), and also ignores the extensive interconnections among the people of the country that do not work through religion at all, but through political, social, economic, commercial, artistic, musical or other cultural activities. In a less straightforward way, the powerful school of communitarian thinking also hallows exactly one identity per human being, based on community membership, and in effect downplays all other affiliations that make human beings the complex and intricate social creatures that we are.

Sometimes Sen's analysis of this reductionism reads like a civilised older man unable to come to terms with the barbarity surrounding him but the description of the problem is rewarding enough.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Mooching around

BookMooch is a free book trade and exchange community

Friday, August 04, 2006

At Changi

Wow. Never had a airport transit quite like this one. I had about 6 hours to spare at Singapore's Changi airport. I walked off my plane from Tokyo expecting a real grind.

Then, as I cruised the shopping area like some kind of consumer zombie, I saw the gym. It cost only a £5 for an hour. They gave me the shorts, t-shirt, socks, trainers and towel and I pedalled for all I was worth for my allotted time. I then had a shower, which was also included in the price, and, feeling rather virtuous and refreshed, went to the Singaporean restaurant, where I consumed a massive chilli crab, which apparently is a bit of a thing in these parts.

Another thing to note about this airport is that it has very few PA announcements. This is bad for the alcoholic airport bar types who are habitually late for their boardings but great for the rest of us. Famous last words. Better be off.

(Picture of the crab nicked from 'z dead' because I couldn't download from the airport computer. My table looked exactly the same, down to the Tiger beer)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bradshaw Art

There are up to 100,000 rock paintings spread over 50,000 sq. km of the Kimberley area of Australia in a style quite distinct from Aboriginal rock art. These paintings are believed to be at least 17,000 years old, perhaps much older.

Some people believe it is evidence of a pre-Aboriginal culture. The thesis has caused controversy in Australia, where claims of a culture being displaced by the Aborigines are politically sensitive. Some Aborigines have condemned the paintings as "rubbish art" and there are accusations in this article of vandalism and overpainting by some Aborigines (although I always thought overpainting was a feature of Aboriginal rock paintings in general). The article does not give enough space for cool analysis of what may be an overstretched theory but it is worth reading if you have a few moments.

Anyway, the paintings are beautiful. Below is a Bradshaw painting with more recent Aboriginal paintings below:

More Bradshaw art here.

The World Map of Happiness

Here. Don't know how it was worked out but I find it interesting because I had always thought I had been told that there was no positive correlation between people's assessments of their own happiness and their economic well being. At first sight, it seems money and access to resources does appear to have some influence.