Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hobson’s Choice

When I was a boy… [Surely one of the benefits of becoming an old codger is that you can get away with reminiscences beginning with “When I was a boy”.] So. When I was a boy, life was simpler for children than it is now.

For one thing, the food was simpler. In the 1940s and ‘50s, shops didn’t carry pre-cooked meals, at least in Queensland. McDonald’s and KFC hadn’t come to us yet. Prepared food in general? Heck, even sandwich-shops created their goodies while we watched. Nothing was prepared ahead of time. We office-workers lined up at midday and gave our orders one by one to sweaty-handed lads living dangerously with razor-sharp knives. There was no air-conditioning, and the fans couldn’t really cope with the heat.

Hygienic gloves hadn’t come into fashion, then, but we hardly ever discovered any blood in our fillings. The sandwich-makers were skilled at their job.

We didn’t have allergies, because allergies are immune-deficiencies caused by the excessive avoidance of germs. Frankie Gardiner was the only kid with asthma that anybody ever knew, out at Hannaford; and he was from Melbourne, a thousand miles or more to the south. Maybe he had led too sheltered a life; he was a delicate boy, who tended to hang back when the rest of us were messing around in the dirt.

Kitchen-cleansers that remove 99% of all household germs are bad for young children. It’s the 99% of household germs that build up kids’ immunities. What doesn’t kill children makes them stronger – just like our Grandmas said.

When I was a boy, not only was food simpler than it is now: so were menus. Our mothers’ menus at every mealtime were quintessentially simple – namely, what was on the plate. The choice was Hobson’s choice: eat it or don’t eat it. Actually: eat it all or don’t bother turning up for the next meal.

My Mum would bend the rules a bit, in a good cause; but she never broke them. I hated pumpkin, so she kindly served me only a token amount; and in the spirit of fair play I ate all of that. It was easier at boarding school. There I could give my pumpkin away, and fill up with the stale bread that usually went begging.

In the bush, most of our food was mutton, home-raised at a marginal cost that was close to zero. In town, too, our only meat was mutton, out of residual loyalty to the sheep-farming industry. During my working years in Brisbane my landladies often served up roast beef on Sundays, but it was many years before I could eat it without feeling guilty.

I was left with a lifelong aversion to choice, with regard to foods. Even today I never feel completely comfortable in restaurants, for that reason. I love eating at friends’ houses, because they don’t give me a choice. Occasionally a hostess will say, “I hope you like this”, but she doesn’t really care. There’s never an alternative on offer. “Sorry, Wendy, I’m a vegetarian.” “Oh dear, George; let me scrape the meat off your plate and give you a few more potatoes. There you go.”

When courtesy requires, I will eat anything at all. In Tehran, I was once offered a sheep’s eye. As it happens – and fortunately – our host had lived in the West. As I steeled myself, the eye glaring at me defiantly, he took pity. (The host, not the eye. The eye was pitiless.) “I know it’s not a western thing”, he said, “and I won’t be offended if you’d rather not choke it down. But for us it’s a delicacy. Why not let me eat it?” I settled for the tender eyelid-meat that surrounded the organ. That saved me a little bit of “face”. Linda wouldn’t even eat that.

Somebody once told me of a British couple who discovered a restaurant in Madrid whose specialty was bulls’ testicles. Animals killed in the bull-fights are sold at the markets, and no part of the beast is wasted. One night the serving was meagre – tasty, but much smaller than usual – and the couple asked why. The waiter shrugged. “Senor, Senora… You know, the bull doesn't always lose. Very occasionally, he wins, and then it is the matador who dies.”

It – uhhh – it may not be a true story, but it’s worth the telling.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Standards in Public Life (in Cayman)

Having Cayman as a colony is not all fun and games for the British Government. The poor old FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) goes to all the trouble of designing a framework to contain bad behavior by our local rulers, only for the framework to be ignored or subverted.

Bad behavior is supposed to be monitored – and, ideally, curtailed – by three politically appointed Commissions, as well as by the FCO-appointed Public Auditor. A couple of other public officers are supposed to keep the Civil Service in line – an ombudsman (Complaints Commissioner) and a Freedom of Information Officer.

Nothing works the way it was intended. Each member of the Commissions was chosen because he or she was reckoned to be “a safe pair of hands”. The Anti-Corruption Commission has uncovered two or three of the most blatant of thousands of daily illegalities within the Immigration Department, but any trials will have to wait two or three years. After all, why hurry? There’s plenty of cash in the kitty to keep the suspects’ salaries and perks paid in full while they sit at home and attend to their private businesses.

The Human Rights Commission wastes its time on legal technicalities, and avoids taking official notice of the longtime exploitation of unskilled migrants, indentured (without the slightest supervision) to their employers. “Near slavery”, the Jamaicans call it, sometimes with good reason. The HRC also ignores Cayman’s treatment of our boat-people – Cuban refugees, many of whom die on the way from Cuba to Honduras via Cayman waters. The HRC doesn’t seem to regard refugees or poor migrants as human, within the terms of its responsibility.

The Standards in Public Life Commission does nothing at all, as far as we can tell.

Last week one of our Cabinet Ministers, responsible for Health, Culture, Youth and Gender Affairs, lost his rag when invited by his Chief Officer (the most senior Civil Servant in any Ministry) to provide evidence to support a dubious expense-claim before submitting it for reimbursement. The Minister – an arrogant bully at any time; he “has form”, as the English say – cursed out the unfortunate CO in the hearing of the entire staff. "How dare you!! I am a born Caymanian and you are just a piece of fucking driftwood! Get the fuck out of my office! Go on - fuck off!" Or words to that effect.

Our Premier backed his crony, the bully. The Chief Officer was transferred to another Portfolio. The Minister lost a couple of responsibilities, but retained Culture – which gives us lots of hope for the future…

Never mind the cursing. The word "driftwood" – and its tolerance by our Premier – is what will cost his Party the next election. That the Chief Officer was a highly respected immigrant of longstanding (foreign-born, but with bloodline-Caymanian children by her bloodline-Caymanian ex-husband) indicates the profound contempt for expats that flourishes in the leadership of our ruling party.

Ever since I began this blog in 2010, I have bewailed the anti-expat attitudes of many bloodline-Caymanians. Not all of them: probably not even a majority: but many. And most of the “many” voted for this present ruling party, which has always had a bit of a name for being anti-expatriate. This latest incident removes all doubt, and it is way too much for any of our expat communities to accept.

Our votes are gone, and they won’t be coming back. British and other European, North American, Latino, Jamaican, Asian, African… we’re all well represented on the voting lists these days, and we will probably vote as a bloc next time. Come back, McKeeva – all is forgiven!

Where does Cayman go from here? Into further tribal divisiveness, unfortunately. And further corruption. When Linda and I came here in 1978, Caymanian Status (citizenship, in effect) could be bought for $30,000, paid under the counter to the right person in high office. The “marl road” – our grapevine – reports that it has been available for only $20,000 recently. Ah well: it’s good to know some prices have escaped inflation.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

X is for Xmas

I came across a website the other day that challenged readers to write a series of 26 essays, within a selected theme, each essay to be identified with a different letter of the alphabet. Mentally flipping through my blog’s archives I found I could handle the assignment only if I used X for Xmas – or, X for Xnty, which is my private shorthand for Christianity.

Q & Z were easy: they could stand for Queensland and Zorba, respectively. Zorba the Greek was a movie that was showing at a cinema in Thessaloniki, Greece, one night in 1964; a gang of us from the Youth Hostel went and watched it – dubbed in Greek, with English sub-titles. I was reminded of the event by a Canadian chap we came across in what is now Vanuatu eight years later; I blogged about that meeting in January 2012, and it’s in the Archives under the name of the movie.

It’s nice to have a legitimate “Z for …” in my bag. My cousin Arthur was Secretary to the Bishop of Zambia in the 1950s, but I’ve never written about that; and nothing memorable has ever happened to me at a zoo. So it was Zorba or nothing. It’s much the same with Queensland. I’ve hitched to and through Queenstown in New Zealand and Qum in Iran, and I once took in a day’s polo at Windsor Great Park in the company of a Duke named Quentin. But Qs are slim pickings in any context.

This month I’m reading “The Atheists’ Guide to Christmas” – which to my surprise uses the C-word and not the X-abbreviation. That’s weird. I myself always write Xmas, unless to a known or suspected Christian whom I don’t want to offend. (My shorthand for “Christian” is Xn, naturally enough. Among some of my US acquaintances, Xian is a code word for Zionist, which is interesting; maybe they use it to throw the censors off the scent.)

X was and is the letter of the Greek alphabet whose sound was and is similar to our English hard-C. When Christianity began as a religion, Greek commentators translated the Semitic title “Messiah” [“the anointed”] as Christos – in Greek lettering which was later transliterated into Christ. Christos meant “anointed” (smeared with ointment) in a general religious context, and was conveniently close in sound to Horus, the Egyptian sky-god widely respected (and sometimes worshipped) in the Greek culture of the time. And who was born of a virgin, and whose holy day was 25th December. What a coincidence!

Happily, too, Jesus/Iesus was conveniently close in sound to Isis, that same virgin mother. Thus: Jesus Christ = Iesus Horus, as though the “Christ” part was a surname and not a title. There is another Greek word (probably related), that transliterates as kharis, meaning “grace”, which is used in their “thanks” – efkharisto, from which we got our English Eucharist.

Christianity is a largely synthetic religion, absorbing rituals, traditions, legends and names from just about every belief-system it encountered. It pinched the whole of the Old Testament from Judaism – and, more recently, the Christmas Tree and Santa Claus from the Germans.

Our English name for God is Germanic – Gott from the Goths and Scots, both of which peoples took their names from the same ancient tribal god. In contrast, southern European tribes mostly stuck with the name of Zeus in its several forms, inherited from the even more ancient tribal god of Sumer in southern Iraq. I blogged about The Names of God in March 2012.

For centuries the name “damn” was considered a blasphemy, after Christianity had commandeered the general sound of it for its own god. (“Damn/domine” in Latin meant “master” or “lord”; its origin – as far as can be speculated – was the ancestor of the Aramaic god Tammuz, whose name endures in England’s River Thames. And in the word democracy – as explained in a blog-post of November 2011.

Gods’ names are the very devil to shake off.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Cousin Harry and the Branson girl (India 1905)

Several cousins and ancestors on my Barlow side were involved (to a greater or lesser degree) in the maintenance of the British Empire’s Indian branch-offices. My grandfather’s cousin Arthur was the last of them; he retired in 1947 after twenty years in the Indian Civil Service as a Political Officer and Agent. The Political Office was an informal sub-agency of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency – British India being regarded as “domestic” – so Arthur was a spy of some sort.

(Flipping through an old address-book of his after he died, I came across the name Anthony Blunt, who also joined MI5, and who notoriously spied for the Soviets in the 1930s and ‘40s. Arthur couldn’t have spied for them, or he wouldn’t have been buried inside the grounds of Wells Cathedral! Only for his Queen and country.)

The first head of MI5, in 1909, was a British Army Officer from the South Staffordshire Regiment. From that same regiment had also come, in 1905, Arthur’s (and my grandfather’s) cousin Harry Barlow. In that year, Harry was appointed the Official Tutor of the son and heir of the Raja of Sirmur – one of the nominally independent Princely States of the Punjab, in the north-west of what is now the nation of India Bharat.

I have no access to the records of whichever agency preceded MI5, but it seems reasonable to suppose that Harry was instructed to teach the boy how to further the interests of the Empire. His pupil generously contributed the lives of some hundreds of his soldiers to Britain’s war effort against the Germans in the European theatre of the War of 1914-18. Besides coaching the boy, Harry probably had a hand in training The Sirmur Rifles, a regiment of Gurkhas based in the Protectorate.

He had been a Captain in the South African War of 1899-1902, and the Military Administrator of an Afrikaner town after the War. His parents had died young, and he had been raised in the household of his uncle, a former Private Secretary to Cabinet Ministers in London. So he would have been considered “the right sort of chap” to represent British interests abroad – at least at the modest level required.

There was one blot on his escutcheon, though it wasn’t fatal to his career. In 1902 his wife divorced him for adultery, naming as the co-respondent an actress daughter of the house of Branson & Branson, English barristers in Madras for at least three generations, and in Bombay for at least one. He married the girl immediately afterwards. (Not so much a girl, by then, but I always think of her as a girl.) As a professional actress, she was probably reckoned to have “married up”, in England; but in India it would have been Harry who married up.

Branson is not all that common a name, and Google has links to the ancestry of Sir Richard-of-the-Virgins, whose grandfather was a cousin of hers. Her side of the family may not have been as successful at lawyering as his side, because her deceased estate amounted to only 647 pounds when she died in 1954, aged 90. 647 pounds wasn’t much, in 1954. Maybe she received a monthly remittance from back home; I hope so.

Harry died of cholera during one of the region’s regular epidemics, in 1909 – on the train down to Delhi, on his way to stay with Ada in Bombay. He was buried where he fell, more or less – in the Nicholson Cemetery in Delhi; I even have the grave number (#800F in Pukka Plot 15 #25), although I doubt it’s still there. As far as I can tell, Ada lived the rest of her life in London, where she must have had relatives. Her mother had been buried in Golders Green.

 She (Ada) had been married before the affair with Harry, and presumably her husband divorced her about the same time as Harry divorced his wife and two children. A few years ago I had to track down one of Harry’s granddaughters (by the first wife), when she and I inherited a few quid on the death of cousin Arthur’s widow. She (the granddaughter) had never heard of Ada Branson; I expect the name was taboo in that household.

I once asked Arthur how Harry came to be employed in the Palace of Sirmur, only to be brushed off with the suggestion that he had probably answered an advertisement in The Times. A typically MI5 lie, it seems to me now.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Tough as old boots (local foods)

We have become local-food fanatics in our old age. It’s taken us a long time to see the light, but what can I tell you? We’re slow learners.

Cayman doesn’t produce much food – at least, food that we both like. I’m notorious (in my family) for disliking all vegetables except the staples – potatoes, tomatoes (yes, yes, I know…), beans, peas and carrots. I will eat lettuce and chick peas in salads, and fried rice with little unidentifiable bits and pieces mixed in, but I don’t seek those things out.

Cayman grows only tomatoes, of my staples, and those only in the season, whenever that is. Linda tries to grow them, but they ripen too quickly in the tropical sun, before they have time to reach a decent size. The farmers grow a lot of other veges that sell well, though not to me: callaloo and ackees and yams, breadfruit and plantain and cassava. And pumpkins. Linda makes super pumpkin scones, but there's not much pumpkin-taste to them, fortunately.

Plenty of local fruit, as it happens. In their respective seasons, we’re never short of local bananas, mangoes, papaya, limes, oranges of a sort, sweetsop (which is what we called “custard apple” when I was a boy), and the ever-present coconut. That’s quite a variety. We’re spoilt for choice, pretty much.

I don’t think any of those are organically farmed. Our small farmers use chemical weedkillers by the barrel, and some of the chemicals are wildly toxic. The local favourite is Paraquat, which is deathly, and the weapon of choice for the neighbours of dogs that bark all night. I wouldn’t want any of that on Linda’s tomatoes.

Local jams are occasionally sold at the farmers’ market up at Camana Bay every Wednesday, and at the main farmers’ market out Bodden Town way. There’s local honey again, now that Otto Watler is back in the game. All his bees died a couple of years ago, and had to be replaced. $15 is quite a high price – but they are big jars, and hold about a pint. About a pint: Mr Watler’s labels don’t tell us exactly how much; but we buy anyway. What the heck. Two tuppennies.

For meats and the like, we limit ourselves to local pork, beef and eggs, Jamaican chicken, and fish caught by local fishermen off the coasts of South America or on the reefs between there and here. All of that is more or less pure. Jamaican chickens aren’t free-range, but we trust the factories there not to pump them full of hormones like more sophisticated farmers do.

For the first fifteen years of my life I was brought up on home-grown mutton, and raw milk that Dad coaxed out of his Jersey cows first thing in the morning, every morning. We never drank sheep’s milk, for some reason; and Dad never kept goats. I’ll have to ask my brother; he will know why. Our meat always came from the skinniest old wether Dad could find. Tough as old boots, it was; all the fat and tender sheep went off to the markets in Toowoomba, to be sold at auction to the butchers.

We had a low-tech separator machine that separated the cream from the milk. Dad or Mum (I forget) churned some of the cream into butter – with more salt than was good for us, I’m sure. All that full-fat cream we guzzled… I wonder we three boys are still alive to remember it.

Actually, it’s not nostalgia that drove Linda and me back to locally produced food, but the artificial additives in today’s mass-produced food. American veges are dosed with Agent Orange to keep the bugs at bay, and American animals are injected with steroids and hormones to make them mature faster. This much is true: my man-boobs began shrinking the minute I stopped eating USDA meats.

During our backpacking days in the Middle East in the ‘60s, not being able to understand the languages of the region, and travelling poor, Linda and I used to inspect the pots bubbling away in the slum restaurants’ filthy kitchens. As a rule of thumb, and all else being equal, we would choose from the pot furthest away from the cockroaches and rat-droppings. Looking back now, we suspect that what we ate then was probably healthier than the food the agri-businesses palm off on the world today. What a sad judgment that is, on the modern way of life.