Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Welcome to the Pig


Another "Happy New Year!", as it is now the third day of the Chinese Spring Festival. We had a great meal at the Tab on Saturday night, with plenty of dumplings and other food.

It is now the year of the pig or boar. Apparently pigs will eat anything, which is probably why we call people greedy pigs. Before you are tempted call someone a smelly pig, however, remember that they don't sweat and have a very good sense of smell.

Pigs are generally quite tasty, although someone did tell me that some Chinese traditions say that a person should not eat the animal of their birth year. I never did like chicken anyway.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

How many roads?

Last week on the train, the "train manager" managed to hit me in the head with her ticket-punchy-thing after checking my ticket. She really wasn't having a good day, as she also said we were in Milton Keynes when we were in Stockport, and told us we were arriving at London Euston instead of Manchester Piccadilly.

Of course, she was very, very apologetic, and seemed upset because she thought I wouldn't travel with them again again. I suppose I might avoid an airline if they had particualrly bad service and there were other flights I could take instead, but should I really take an extra hour or so and go via York to get to Manchester? Should I just avoid route 7, or all Virgin trains, and take the slow Silverlink service to get to Birmingham?

Not having a car or a driving licence, driving would be quite impractical, even if it weren't slower than the train. Walking might be enjoyable, but it would take a bit longer than I'd like. If I did walk, however, I'd like to find a nice route along canals, not walk down the middle of the road like the woman I saw this morning. I don't know what she thought she was doing, but she definitely didn't impress the drivers. Vehicles have enough trouble passing each other on that stretch, without trhowing pedestrians into the mix!

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

What colour is your Hair?

In the last month or so, the issue of racism has repeatedly popped up in the news. For at least a week, the airwaves and front pages were full of discussion of whether Jade Goody's actions on the British Celebrity Big Brother were racist. Then last week it was revealed that the man so often labelled a racist by subcontinental cricket fans, umpire Darrell Hair, is suing the International Cricket Council and the Pakistan Cricket Board for racial discrimination.

I don't know what went on in the Big Brother house, as I don't watch the show (and not only because I am liable to be shot for even accidentally pressing the "4" button on the remote while it is on), but I gathered that Jade Goody did not treat fellow housemate Shilpa Shetty very well and made remarks referring to her race. At least one talk show asked the question, "Is Jade racist or just a bully?". But why should it matter? Is bullying any worse if it is racist? Alternatively, is it any less bad if there is no racism? Surely bullying is wrong whether it occurs because the victim is of a different background, less skilled at something or because of jealousy.

It is good to speak out against racism, but surely there is something wrong when we imply that similarly bad actions would be ok if committed for other motives. At the same time as Goody was dominating the news, it was reported that a judge in a racial harassment case told the offender "Next time call him a fat bastard and don't say anything about his colour." I'm not sure that calling a doctor a "fat bastard" is really on the same level as saying you want an English one, not a "Paki",* but the incident does highlight the extra importance that is given to anything that can be called racist.

On the topic of racial insults, the Australian advertising watchdog has decided over the summer that the word "pom" is ok, but not "whingeing pom". It is a funny situation, somehow acknowledging that many people use the epithet in a friendly rather than derogatory manner and yet it is clearly a racial term. No doubt the "British People Against Racial Discrimination" who complained have actually at some point been called Poms in circumstances more often associated with other ethnic slurs.

The Hair affair seems quite ironic, in a sense. Several of his controversial actions have been to the detriment of subcontinental cricketers and teams, and they are often blamed on his racism. Now he is trying to turn the tables and say that his removal from umpiring top level cricket after the debacle that was Pakistan's forfeited test at the Oval last year was racist. The event definitely did generate a lot of racist comments especially from Pakistani and Sri Lankan fans. It is also true that Hair seems to have shouldered a bit too much of the blame, when West Indian umpire Billy Doctrove should have been at least nearly as responsible. I would definitely say that Hair has been unfairly treated by the ICC, but the reasons for this definitely aren't simply racial, but to do with Hair's personal history. It is a great pity that race has to come into it. If Hair's treatment was unfair, it is wrong, whether or not it was racial discrimination. Similarly, if his actions as an umpire, undoubtedly courageous, were unfair rather than just misguided, stubborn or even correct, he should take the blame, whether he was racially motivated or not.

The race issue can often be a red herring, and singling out racism as worse than other offences can in my opinion be harmful, but it is worth thinking about why it is singled out. Obviously, racist actions offend a whole group and not just the direct victim, meaning that there are plenty of people eager to support the victim and condemn the perpetrator. However, there is much more to it than that. Racism is targetted because it so common. It is there - people do object to "Paki" doctors, but don't ask for skinny ones. It is also often blatantly unfair. Not only has been behind so many horrible crimes, but it has led to general mistreatment of whole groups of people. We should stand up against any unfairness, and not just unfairness based on race, but racism is so big that stamping it out would make a big dent. On top of that, racism is like a virus, easily bred and spread through whole groups of people in the same way that a whole race will be offended and/or scared by it. For all these reasons, it is right to stand against racism, and try to stamp out even small instances before they grow, but only as one particularly virulent form of wrong.

(*"Paki" in British English is a usually derogatory term to refer to people from the Indian subcontinent, although in Australia it is more likely to be a simple abbreviation of "Pakistani" without any connotations or application to non-Pakistanis. The polite British term is "Asian", which to Australian ears would be more likely suggest East or South-East Asians, except perhaps in the context of cricket.)

Wednesday, 7 February 2007


Here in England, the many deciduous trees show the seasons in a way the Australian evergreens don't. The lack of leaves clearly shows that it is winter, and sometimes it can seem gloomy compared to the greenery of summer. However, I've come to see that bare branches can be very beautiful - covered in snow, appearing through the mist and especially against the bright blue sky on a clear sunny day.

This morning as I was waiting for a bus, some trees across the road formed not only a fine silhouette, but a playground for a pair of squirrels. They scurried around the trunks and along the branches, leaping from branch to branch in a way that defied the apparent delicacy of the thinnest branches. At first it seemed that they were chasing each other, but then I saw that the very slightly larger one in the lead seemed to be stopping and waiting for the one behind, making me think it was a mother teaching a child the art of tree-scampering.

These grey squirrels are considered pests, as they have been introduced from North America and increase in number rapidly, displacing the native red squirrels. Some of the plans to remove them and protect the red squirrels probably have merit, but while I watched these two run around until the bus came, I was jsut glad to see any squirrels at all.