The Lambeth Country Show

I spent yesterday and Saturday at the Lambeth Country Show.

For the last forty years, the London Borough of Lambeth has held an annual event in Brockwell Park, around the middle weekend in July, except in 2012 when a shortage of portaloos because of the Olympics meant it had to be rescheduled to September. (The Council tried to cancel it, but there was a massive popular outcry.)  It seems as though the whole borough goes to the show –  but the estimates are that only about 100,000 do. So about four out of five of us doesn’t.  More fool them.

The show is free, and long may it remain so.  The council – committed nuLabourites to a woman and man –  would love to be able to charge for it.  They’ve introduced charging for the other big community event in the park – the annual fireworks on Bonfire night. Don’t get me started on the fiasco that was.  Charging for the show would change it from a wonderfully inclusive event to yet another ghetto for the gentry and the hipsters, which is just what the council wants.

It is a brilliant conceit, dating back to when we had a real Labour council. Our inner London borough, as urban as they get, puts on a flower and produce show like a rural county show. But it also has several giant music stages like a big festival – although it doesn’t need to book chart-topping headliners , and lots of stalls and stands. Every year it seems to get busier. For years it was hardly advertised at all – and only ever in the borough.  No one outside had heard of it.  It was such an unlikely event.  A country show? In Lambeth? How ridiculous!  We Brixtonites – and really, it is a Brixton event – kept schtum. It was our show. Of course, people who’d left would come back for it.  Our friend who’s now a super-hot TV producer in LA comes back for it whenever she can. Worse, its reputation is spreading. People with no connection with the borough cross town to come to it.  That’s not to say they’re not welcome, but the Lambeth Country Show is ours. It’s the day of the year when the whole community goes to the park for a party.

It’s the start of the school holidays, sometimes – as this year – just after the schools have broken up – or in other years it’s  the weekend before those last dog days of term when nothing ever gets done – so most middle-class families have yet to pack their bags for Tuscany.  The normal London children are there too of course, and well provided-for.  There’s a funfair and several giant inflatable slides, and the children love going round to see the animals.

There are wonderful events. Camel racing; a jousting competition, falconry demonstrations, sheepdog trials. One year we saw the Household Cavalry performing cavalry manoeuvres in perfect time to thumping techno music. Superbly surreal.   The highlight of the flower and produce show is a class for vegetable sculptures  – probably unique to Lambeth, and certainly exceptional.

And we drink cider. Specifically, Chucklehead Cider from a small Devon producer. Years ago they took a stand at the show and sold out. Every year since then they’ve increased the amount of cider they sell; it’s now by far the largest event they do. Practically their entire annual production is sold at one event in a Brixton park.  It’s strong – 7% – real scrumpy cider, sold in plastic bottles like the ones you get milk from the supermarket in.  It’s very pleasant and gets you softly, gently merrily chuckleheaded in the sun. There are lots of other bars and other brands of cider are available, but we regulars know that for the Lambeth Country Show one drinks Chucklehead.  Despite the fact that many people are really quite drunk, there is hardly ever any trouble – except occasionally some of our more opportunistic youth might take advantage of the situation to nick a bag or two. But this is very rare.

There’s a big choice of food stalls, but this is Brixton so we eat jerk chicken.

This also being Brixton, there are thousands of  beautiful people, relaxed, cheery, smiling in the sun with plenty of multicoloured flesh exposed.

As far as I know, no other borough in London does anything like it. They should: they shouldn’t try to copy it (the brilliant incongruity makes LCS uncopiable), but put on their own free summer shows in their local park.  Otherwise our own Lambeth Country Show will get too crowded – if it isn’t already.

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Was like is now proper English

Just listening to conversations around, it’s quite clear to me that “was like” to mean “said” is now almost universal usage.  I have never consciously used it non-ironically but it’s the sort of construction that creeps into language almost unnoticed.

I realised recently that it’s not actually a direct replacement for “said”. “Said” is followed by direct speech: an exact repetition of what is being reported as having been said.

“Was like” is much more flexible. It implies a reporting of the meanings exchanged – including, crucially, any gestures or facial expressions, not merely the exact words.  So

“And he was like, you kidding me right, innit?” could merely mean that he had raised an incredulous eyebrow.

It’s a much more expressive and fluent way of conveying reported speech that the dreadfully clumsy indirect reported speech in a subordinate clause we are supposed to use.

So I’m like, it’s so cool how English changes.

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The Big Iftar

On Twitter, I have been followed by @thebigiftar

Iftar, if you didn’t know, is the name of the meal taken by Muslims during Ramadan to break the fast. It usually happens at the mosque, and by tradition the first thing you eat is a date.  The Big Iftar is a project to get British non-Muslims to join their local mosque for iftar, to build interfaith understanding.  It’s a great idea and I think I should go, but…

Observing the Ramadan fast is really, really hard. Particularly in these northern latitudes, for the last few and next few years.  I really admire anyone who can do it, and most of the  Muslims I know try, but fail.  The rule is no food or drink during daylight hours, between sunrise and sunset. I think it’s way too hard.  By contrast, the Christian abstention from meat during Lent is way too easy.  Auguste Escoffier, the famous chef, wrote a recipe for fish stock, which he said should include chicken stock. But for a truly Lenten fish stock, you should replace the chicken stock with a few tablespoons of pureed caviare.  Fasting should involve some self-denial, and replacing chicken stock with caviare – oh the suffering!

Ramadan is hard enough if you live in Saudi Arabia. This year, in Mecca, you must fast for about thirteen and a half hours each  day.  In London, it’s sixteen and a half. If you live in Lerwick, it’s eighteen and a half. That means you have to have all your daily sustenance in about six and a half hours. Of course, as Muslims use a lunar calendar, in a few years’ time Ramadan will come in midwinter and the northerners will have a much easier time of it.  But for now,  I’d like to see some of the Saudi scholars who interpret these rules move to Lerwick for Ramadan this year and see how they get on.

I get fasting. I see the point of self-denial for spiritual development.  It should be challenging. But the challenge should be realistic, so that people who try but fail don’t feel too bad. It’s always better to set achievable goals than impossible ones.  I’m quite sure God would feel as kindly towards a Muslim who chose to observe Ramadan by, say, walking to work every day instead of taking the Tube, rather than fasting; or drinking only tap water for the whole month and donating the money that would have been spent on coffees and colas to a suitable charity.

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My Next Phone (2) – a Yotaphone?

I have just discovered about the Yotaphone.

I can’t afford one and I’ve got at least another year on my Sony Xperia z1 Compact contract.

But… the Yotaphone, now in its second iteration, features at least one of the ideas in my previous post on this subject – (My Next Phone (1)) – that is, the twin-screen idea, with a bright power-hungry AMOLED display on one face and a miserly monochrome eInk display on the other.

Now I’m not saying that Yotaphone copied me. I had the two-screen idea several years ago, but didn’t blog about it. However, if they’ve patented it and anyone wants to challenge them in the US, I’d be happy to talk. I can probably provide prior-invention date notes. The challenge wouldn’t work outside the US  where there’s first-to-file priority.  Or, hey, Yotaphone, just sling me a phone and we’ll say no more? OK. Deal.

But it would be even cooler if the Yotaphone 3 were to feature some of the other cool ideas in that earlier post.

Stronger, please

Dudes, make the phone stronger. With two screens, it needs to be tough enough not to need a case when in the gritty-grimy  hands of a tough outdoorsy messy hands-on gardener-cook bloke like me. Not everyone is a silky-handed metrosexual.   IP68 construction please. It must pass the 2-metre stone floor drop test and the washing-machine test.  If it gets a bit of garden soil or engine oil on it, a rinse under the tap with a splash of detergent to clean it.

Two batteries

I was a fisherman in an earlier part of my life.  I’ve spent time fiddling around with fishing-boat engines. And on boats with diesel engines, we have two batteries. One just does the starting, the other the ship’s supply circuitry. If we stay up too late under electric light and run the batteries down, the engine will still start.  Same principle for the phone. Let it still work if I use it for a long gaming or video session on the Amoled screen.

Eight Cameras

Four on each face, to allow stereoscopic imaging and stereographic display (the latter using eye-position triangulation)  in either orientation.  And possibly super-high-resolution imaging using baseline interferometry if you can get the manufacturing tolerances tight enough.

Tell you what, keep the eight camera idea for the Yotaphone 4.  Keep everyone guessing. But the IP68 and two-batteries bit, that’s urgent.

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That Mars trip is a dumb, dumb idea

You know the one. The one where people go but don’t come back. They go to colonise and settle Mars.

The reason is, it’s very difficult to get stuff to Mars.  And to get enough fuel for a return trip – enough fuel to launch a rocket from the surface of Mars and back to Earth – just makes the figures all but impossible. Enough mass, because rockets work on Newton’s Third Law. You’d almost certainly have to make the fuel for the return journey on Mars itself.  Setting up a bunch of solar panels to make hydrogen and oxygen gas from water. Of which there is precious little, except by the South pole where the sun don’t shine.   Getting people to Mars and back is about a hundred times as difficult as getting them to Mars and not back. So, if humans are going to go to Mars any time soon, a one-way trip is practical. A return trip, less so.

So these intrepid adventurers will go to Mars and start a colony. They’ll take plants and try to create a breathable atmosphere – but it will have to be inside pressure vessels. Big plastic  tube-tents. Mars doesn’t have enough gravity to create an open atmosphere suitable for humans to breathe.  They’ll live and die there, of boredom if not of cold, hunger or disease.  And the idea is that they’ll breed.

They’ll land where there’s just enough ice, below the surface, to give them some water.

It will be cold, cold, cold.

It’s not suitable for human colonisation. It will never be a nice place to live; at least, not in our lifetime or the next few millennia. In a few hundred million years or so, it will be warmer as the sun expands.  The Earth will get too hot, and then we should be thinking about getting there. But Mars isn’t just cold, it’s dry. Very dry. When the Sun gets too hot, our oceans will evaporate. Mars probably had oceans once too, and lost them because it doesn’t have our gravity.

If we are to live on Mars, as a staging post for a few million years before we have to find another solar system, we’ll need to put a decent amount of water there. Like a lot of water. How to do that?  Crash a comet or two onto it.  But that will have planetary consequences.  The effects of the crash – crashes –  would almost certainly wipe out any surviving settlement.

Consider this. Suppose, a long time (millioniennia?)  hence, we do decide we need to colonise Mars properly and have the technology to divert comets to give it a reasonable amount of water.  But there’s a few hardy souls still there, the descendants of a madcap plan to colonise it for a reality show in the early twenty-first century. Against the odds, they’ve survived. Evacuation is out of the question, but dropping a comet on the surface would wipe out the settlement.   If we don’t colonise Mars, we know that the Earth will be uninhabitable in a few dozen generations.  If we don’t drop the comets, Mars will be too dry for the size of the new settlement we have planned.

By far the most likely outcome of the Mars mission is that it doesn’t happen, and for the sake of the people who’ve signed up to go, I hope to God it doesn’t.  But if it does, the next most likely outcome is that they all die, quite soon after arrival.  Even if they do survive a year or two,  and more supply missions follow, it’s going to need a lot of continuing resources to be delivered from Earth for a long time to have any chance of being sustainable.  Which will need a lot of money, and eventually, people on Earth will get bored.

We’ve got enough to do here on Earth. Sort out climate change. Resolve conflict. We need the smarts and the resources being devoted to this nutty Mars trip used here.

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Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford..

Oh such tragedy. Oh such stupidity.

Cameron suggests that the answer is to criminalise those who don’t report sex abuse. It’s not. It’s nowhere close to being the answer.

The first thing to do is to criminalise the rapists. Pursue and convict enough of them.  It’s a hard job for the police, it will upset some people and it will be even more damaging for the children involved who will have to give evidence against their abusers.   But what went on was vile criminality.  If we can’t convict the men who did this, how on earth will it help by also criminalising people who don’t report it?

But convicting the rapists is the easy bit. By far the hardest bit, and the only way the problem will be prevented in the future, is to find a way of looking after troubled children in care better. I don’t know how this can be done.  Children who end up in care aren’t like the well-adjusted kids of your middle-class friends.  Ending up in care itself is traumatic, on top of whatever it was that gets you there.  They need lots more looking after, from the care worker or the foster parent, than your average well-adjusted middle-class kid, and every harassed middle-class parent knows that well-adjusted middle-class kids need a lot of looking-after.  But the care system doesn’t provide the resources. And even if it could, there isn’t an inexhaustible supply of patient, loving and committed foster carers.  I don’t have answers, but I do know that the problem is the broken care system.

There is also a problem in some of our communities. Perpetrators are also victims, of a culture, of a society that gives them the idea that carrying out these vile acts is anything other than, well, vile.  The fact is that many of the perpetrators had Pakistani heritage. Muslim heritage. It seems that the problem, while it exists in all communities, may be more prevalent in the Pakistani community.  Is there something in the way these young men have been educated that has led them to losing an appropriate moral compass? Have their values  become confused between Western openness to sexual matters and the patriarchal attitude towards women prevalent in many Muslim communities?  Let’s not jump to racist (or islamophobic) conclusions, but try and find out how we can help them and their younger brothers develop  respect for themselves so that they can stand up and respect others.

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Islamic feminism – continuing

I really am not the right person to do this. I am a bloke. I am not a Muslim. But I cheer on the idea of a feminist reformation of Islam, and in this post I am going right out of line by doing some more mansplaining and arguing for it from an Islamic feminist perspective.  Some may say I have no right to do so, but if freedom of speech means anything it means that even middle-aged male atheists can argue for Islamic feminism.  What is truly fucked up is that I’m likely to be taken as seriously as a Muslim woman making the same case.

So here is a plug for someone who is arguing from the right place, as a woman and Muslim.  I haven’t met her, and I know very little about her beyond her Tweets and her online profile. She’s a Londoner with Bengali Muslim heritage, and from what I can tell she’s pretty awesome. Anyway,  she’s angry about the patriarchy in Islam, about the way Muslim men seem to control the money and how she wasn’t taught what the Holy Qu’ran says about how women should be treated, that in many Muslim communities this is ignored and distorted by the patriarchy, that in Islam women are entitled to their independence because the Prophet said so, and that  she wasn’t even taught about the women who were so important in the Prophet’s life. Here’s a link to her website.  Don’t listen to me, listen to her. She’s not the only one, by the way. They are a small but growing band, and in them is the power to save Islam from the combined forces of Islamophobia on the one hand and Daesh and the rest on the other.

Now, the purpose of this post is actually to say that modern Muslim feminists should be more radical still. The Holy Qu’ran doesn’t go far enough; today, nothing less than full equality between men and women – as our secular law in the west essentially provides, but doesn’t deliver – is enough.  And we can argue that were the Prophet alive today, he would be making exactly the same case, supported by the strong and independent women in his life, because we are talking about the twenty-first century, not the seventh; because we don’t live in a society where political and military alliances  are made by marriage, we don’t settle our disputes with tribal warfare, because we are not Daesh, who do want to return us to the time and the values and the technology of the world where the Prophet lived.

But we can learn from those times and the life of the Prophet. Incidentally, let me make a couple of Islamic theological points. I know, I know, I’m not actually qualified; but here goes.  You can call these heresies…  First, it is shirk to claim that the Prophet, peace be unto him, was perfect, because perfection is reserved only to God, and Muhammad the Messenger of God was not God, is not God, but an ordinary, fallible, flawed human being.  A very good and remarkable one, even the best ever to  walk this earth, but not perfect. That’s the point; unlike God, humans are fallible, and Muhammad was human.  My second point of Islamic theology is that to interpret the Holy Qur’an purely literally is also shirk. It is God’s word as revealed to the Prophet, by the Angel Gabriel, but it is not God. It was revealed to the Prophet in the language he understood, Arabic, a human language,  with all the linguistic inadequacies that entails. How can a language understood by humans ever convey the whole wonder that is God’s message?   The truth of God’s message is contained many layers deep in the spiritual meaning of the Holy Qu’ran,  and not in the superficial words. Consider poetry,  the greatest form of human literature. Do we understand the truth of a great poem just from the superficial words? No, we understand it from the way it moves us in our heart and in our soul.  Only the basic form of human literature,  technical manuals, instruction books, books of account, law books do we take only at face value.  The truth of the Holy Qu’ran will not be found in the superficial meaning of its words, but in the deeper spiritual meaning, like great poetry but much more so.  To interpret the Holy Qu’ran just at face value, as if it were a mere instruction-book, is to demean it and worse, to demean God’s message. We will only do justice to the Holy Qu’ran if we don’t take it literally – which deals, conveniently, with the awkward Sura 4.34.

I had better stop theologising now before I get myself into any more trouble, although the folk history of the first Muslims is probably just as tricky ground…. and that’s what’s coming next.  The first Muslim, the first to declare the shahadah, that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger, was Khadija, the one woman to whom Muhammad was married for most of his adult life. She was an independently-wealthy woman who had first employed Muhammad as a young man to look after her trading caravans.  She ran her own business, and she supported Muhammad as he preached the Message of God to the Quraysh, the main tribe of Mecca. Theirs was a love marriage; they were happily monogamous for twenty-five years, despite losing several children at a young age.  However, three daughters did survive, including the youngest, Fatima who went on to marry Ali.    During Khadija’s life, more and more Quraysh converted to Islam and although it was a threat to the ruling polytheists, they did not leave.  It was only after her death that the Quraysh started to persecute the Muslims in earnest, eventually driving them to exile in Medina. There, Muhammad didn’t just have a religion to lead, he had a whole community to organise and to defend against the attacks from the Meccans. He had to adjudicate in domestic disputes, to inspire the young men who were fighting for the whole community, and he had to lead and unite what was a new nation.  He needed to make alliances with other tribes to get their support, and by the custom of the time alliances were cemented with marriage.  All of the Prophet’s later marriages were political alliances of convenience.

The Prophet’s last and youngest wife was Aisha. The story of her marriage, as recounted in several well-regarded hadiths, is troubling to us today. If it were true today, Muhammad would be locked up and reviled as a paedophile.  Apparently she was six or seven years old when she was married, and nine when the union was consummated.  She was the only one of the Prophet’s wives to have been a virgin at marriage,  a fact which was considered important and is argued by some Sunnis as being proof that she was the most favoured of them.  I feel slightly sick writing that.  Yet the same hadiths that record Aisha’s young age also record that she was jealous of the affection that Muhammad still retained for his first wife, Khadija.

Nevertheless, Aisha is an important feminist icon, although more complex and troubling than Khadija.   She bore the Prophet no children and I prefer to think that it was a spiritual marriage. The evidence is that at a spiritual level it was a strong one, Aisha was something of an intellectual prodigy, an important thinker, and independent enough to hold her own in debate with a man more than forty years her senior.   She might be called “feisty” today – a word I don’t like using, because it’s only ever applied to women, and that kind of independence of spirit should be valued equally in men and in women. But it is also clear that as a child Aisha was a pawn in a political power-struggle between her father, Abu Bakr, and Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, the husband of Fatima, his daughter by Khadija.   Ali resented the growing influence of Abu Bakr and accused Aisha of adultery; when the Prophet took Aisha’s side, Ali’s influence was much reduced. At the death of the Prophet, Abu Bakr became the first Caliph, although he only survived for two years, to be succeeded by Umar and then Uthmann.   When Ali became the fourth Caliph,  Aisha objected – no doubt still bearing a grudge against him for the accusation of adultery – and tried to mount a coup, raising and leading an army herself against Ali. She lost and retired from political life, becoming a scholar and a teacher until she died at the age of sixty-four.

We have, then, in Khadija and Aisha, two powerful role models for women today. Khadija the independent businesswoman, the loving, faithful and supportive wife of a loving, faithful and supportive husband; Aisha, the smart child prodigy, the intellectual, the teacher.  They were both fully engaged in the public life of the time, commercial, political and religious.   Not for them a life hidden from view, cooking, cleaning and serving their husbands.  Both, in their own way, stood up to and challenged the patriarchy of their time.

Aisha never knew Khadija. I like to think that the rivalry between them was manipulated by the men in their lives: Aisha’s father and Khadija’s son-in-law, to justify their own political rivalry and to perpetuate a patriarchy that thrives on enmity and divisions.  That division is a betrayal of Tawhid, the vision that the Oneness of God is reflected in the oneness of humanity.  The patriarchy’s split between Abu Bakr and Ali is in the ummah today,  between the Sunni and the Shi’a.

What a force they could have been together, Aisha and Khadija.

What a force they could still be.

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