Shaming myself into writing regularly

Writing ought to be a pleasure. But often it is not. I have had many professional writers among my friends over the years and meet some thirty of them over lunch monthly. Some are famous names, with the most illustrious probably having been the late P. D. James. Others are unfamiliar. They include historians, scientists, philosophers, biographers and a couple of novelists. For most, writing is a job. Once a book is started, it has to be finished, as soon as possible. So we tell each other of any props or inspirations we know to work.

A few years ago, after I’d begun a new book, I noticed that I would on some days become irritable if I were unhappy with my crop. I analysed my habits and realised I ought not to judge myself daily. A week would be a more reasonable time. But how could I see my progress without going over the writing of a whole week?

With this in mind, I decided to start a Writing Diary and to make the boring task of record-keeping as bearable as possible. Why not try to make it pleasure in itself? Thus I bought a leather-bound notebook and a fine calligraphic pen. Then, each weekend, in my slowest and best hand, like a medieval monk working on an illuminated manuscript for his abbot, wrote a short report beginning with the date and a long box inside which I gave myself a number of stars. The box was to stand out visually whenever I wanted to review the week. It worked. A box with five stars in it put a huge wind in my sail, while three stars were still encouraging. An empty box chastised me and demanded a close reading of the entry. Had I been going through the motions, merely, or were my explanations valid?

Dear fellow writer, thirteen months later I had 99,689 words winging their way to the publisher.

Looking back at the entries now, I can see that, as expected, they reveal the usual squirmings and fumblings, as well as the rarer triumphs, of the human being going back to the caves. Here’s an example:

Friday, January 17, |*_____|   I thought I knew what I wanted to say about Boethius. I was going to temper my praise for him because of his neo-Platonist rubbish. But then read Russell on him and was taken aback. He forgives him and adores him and I couldn’t not follow the great man. So, after a lot more reading beside Russell, I decided to tweak the preamble and the conclusion and so got only about 200 words extra this week. Nevertheless, I think I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. I avoided a big blunder.

By contrast, here’s an entry to lift anyone’s heart:

February 7th: |*****|.   This is bliss. This is rare. I’ve almost finished a chapter in a single week, nearly 5000 words (on Beethoven) and know what I want to say to sum him up. And it’s a good chapter, even better than the one on Boethius. Much more emotional, of course. At this rate, I should finish in early May.

Only to be followed by a bleak sight:

May 18th: |______|. A horrible week. Managed to find only a few poems for the anthology. But the reasons were unavoidable. On Wednesday, we had to go to London for a matinee at the National which C had booked long ago. The next day I had to go to London again for the annual lunch I give Gill. On Friday, Cynthia arrived and we went to Charleston [Literary Festival] to listen to Charles. Again, I couldn’t not go. We were his guests. And yesterday and today I had to work in the vegetable garden and the greenhouse. The seedlings had grown gangly and falling over and the weather was perfect. C dragged me out.

 I’m reminded of a piece of advice I was once given by the great philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer. It was May 1987 and he had just finished his biography of Thomas Paine. As my friend John Kilbracken hugged Freddy’s lovely girlfriend, Cynthia, Mrs Robert Key, poor Freddy had to sip white wine with me. He told me that all I had to do to produce a book a year was to write 500 words a day. His mercurial mind and joyous company so lifted me that later in the evening I described it in my diary in doggerel. Here’re a couplet:

 Of course, now that I’m seventy-seven,

I can’t write philosophy that fast.

But Tom Paine’s life was easy;

So many have written on him in the past.

Isn’t life unpredictable? I’m myself now both 77 and writing philosophy.

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The Arab-Iranian attacks on South Kurdistan

The Arab-Iranian Shias’ attack on the Kurds  – Oct 16, 2017.
This is for my dear Kurdish friends in their hour of need.
As I watch all those distraught refugees from the outskirts of Kirkuk, I want to tell you that, from my expeince of a life-time watching and commenting on your struggle, this is yet early days. This is your Dunkirk, but you have not yet lost Kirkuk itself, and you have had many such set-backs in recent centuries and you have always come back to surprise your oppressors and their cowardly and greedy friends outside the region, including the government here in Britain.
Secondly, this war of aggession against you was on its way long before your recent (non-binding) referendum on independence in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan. I knew a couple of years ago that when Barak Hussein Obama began to give all those heavy battle tanks and aircraft to the Shias of Baghdad (a province of the Shias in Tehran, really), the Shias would turn them on you as soon as the Western airforces helped them to get rid of ISIS. I agree with my brave friend, Najmeddin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, and with Goran and others, that this attack has nothing to do with your recent referendum. In fact, i am now beginning to see that  intelligence of this plan may have been an important reason why my other old friend Masoud Barzani did not cancel the referndum. This is prbably also why yet another old friend, Hero Talabani, united with Masoud yesterday in not wanting to renounce the referendum. At least now the world knows how all of you, including Kirkuk voted.
Again, this is early days. Street fighting inside Kirkuk itself will give a better chance to the Peshmerga to defend themselves against the heavy Obama weaons of the Shias. i think that the Shias will not dare go further into the interior of Kurdistan, but wait to see if economic blackade will force Masoud into surrender. If they think that, they do not know you or Masoud. What a tragedy for the people of Iraq, too. Their much-needed resources should not be spent on a war of oppression that will claim thousands of their lives and last many decades. What foolish leaders!
So, all the Kurds must now unite more than ever, and the good news is that i have never seen you so united, in all the four parts of Kurdistan. Now you are firmly established in the mind of the world as a nation, even in the minds of your enemies, the Arabs, the Turks and most Persians. You also have a big presence among the Kurds in the West and these have the freedom to be a thorn in the side of your enemies and Western governments helping your oppressors. Be brave, as usual, and you will be free. Hazhir Teimourian, London.

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What next for the Kurds and Iraq?

This piece was commissioned by the British Armed Forces’ Sound and Vision Corporation for their website:  www.forces.net/news . They will probably shorten it. 27/Sep2017.

Kurds and Arabs, Ottomans and Safavids.

Hazhir Teimourian asks: What next in Iraq?

From Washington to Peking and from London to Tehran, we can imagine top diplomats in mad flurry as they scratch their heads as to how to advise their political bosses regarding the latest crisis in the Middle East. So Mass’ud Barzani, the little-known leader of the little-known regional government in northern Iraq, did not listen to their advice and threats of half-a-dozen years and went ahead with his referendum on independence. They had told him he would risk suicide and plunge the whole of the region into tumult. But now that he has made his rebellion official, what could they do to enable him to save face and yet step back from acting on the mandate that his expectant people have given him so emphatically?

The diplomats and their chiefs will, of course, all perceive themselves as true friends of the Kurdish people whose only concern is to preserve peace and prevent suffering. But whereas in an earlier age, ‘the unruly Kurdish tribes of upper Mesopotamia’, as they saw them, could be persuaded or ignored – or even bombed, as they were in the 1920s – to submit to the new states they were setting up in Baghdad or Damascus – again in the interest of peace and humanity – this time the zig-zag on the ground is much more difficult. There are other regional powers and the Kurds seem to have found a new unity and a new vigour.

As a man of Kurdish upbringing, and as a professional journalist specialising in the Middle East for  four decades, I have watched the Kurds closely all my life as they have struggled for their very survival, as well as for a modicum of rights they believe the world has denied them in recent centuries, even though their numbers dwarf half the countries in the United Nations.

But even I am surprised by the resilience and the valour they are showing. When they were being gassed in large numbers in Iraq by the genocidal, Arab nationalist monster Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, I thought they were probably finished as a people. Next door in Turkey, their very name and language were banned and the government army had burnt down 3000 Kurdish villages and reduced their insurgency to an occasional hit-and-run movement. In Iran, the horrible Islamic regime of the ayatollah Khomeini had turned almost every Kurdish hill into a garrison of the barbarian Revolutionary Guards and in Syria they were being abducted in the middle of the night by the equally monstrous ruling Ba’thists under Hafiz Assad and scattered among Arabs elsewhere to destroy their language and identity. But today, in all these countries they are making their presence felt again. In Turkey, their pursuit of a modest measure of devolution in their own region has become a sizable war, once more, and in Syria, Kurdish solders, including women, have, to Turkey’s fury, become the only effective ally of the West on the ground against both Islamic State barbarians and an eventual Russian take-over of the country through its Ba’thist clients in Damascus. In Iran, they are still oppressed badly, but the other day, thousands of their youths risked arrest to celebrate the referendum across the border. In Iraqi Kurdistan, their autonomous regional government is the only reasonably free and prosperous political entity in the Middle East, after Israel.

But as I write, the future of that mini-state looks grim. Iran has closed its borders to it, as well as the flow of an important river, Baghdad threatens to bludgeon it into submission – unfortunately with the advanced weaponry the Americans have again given it after its rout by IS in 2014 – and Turkey’s president says he will strangle it economically if it does declare independence.

But will Ankara actually do so? I wonder. Apart from the massive trace with Iraqi Kurdistan, I think that a voice inside Erdogan’s increasingly fuzzy head may well be telling him not to forget the centuries of struggle that his Ottoman heroes waged against the Shia Safavid monarchs of Iran for the control of Kurdistan and Baghdad, and perhaps that voice also warns him that he may be about to lose that battle, finally. Shia Arab Iraq is now a virtual province of the Safavids’ heirs in Tehran, and if he, Erdogan, helps Baghdad to extend its sway over Kurdish Iraq, too, he will have lost any chance of at least rescuing part of Mesopotamia as a Turkish dependency, politically and economically. He has the power to make or break Iraqi Kurdistan. Which path will he choose? His family’s coffers will suffer. We will first have to see if Barzani will go ahead with his life-long dream of declaring a free Kurdish state, even in a small corner of Kurdistan.

Unfortunately, among the great powers, only Russia seems to have awakened to the new assertiveness of the Kurds and the potential they possess to shape the new Middle East. Putin is the only world leader to announce ‘support for the Kurds’ aspiration to statehood’ and to urge Baghdad to negotiate to that end. I wish that my old friend the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson were as wise as Putin is and not gang up with Erdogan and the ayatollahs against my other old friend, Mass’ud Barzani. To his credit, the tone of his officials is softening. They are saying that their strong relations with ‘the government of the Kurdish region’ will continue. But they ought to be more active and bend the ear of the Americans, too.

Hazhir Teimourian was born and brought up in Kurdish western Iran and wrote on the Middle East for The BBC and The Times for many years.

 

 

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Assad and Saddam, Khan Sheikhoun and Halabja, 2017 and 1988

In interviews to BBC radios this morning about America’s attack on Syria, I kept calling Assad Saddam. No wonder, of course. They were fellow Ba’thists and genocidal monsters, and they both used gas on civilians. Unfortunately, the world didn’t act on Halabja then If it had, much suffering and possibly wars might have been avoided. But it was a little more difficult then. When Jalal Talabani telephoned me to tell me about it for The Times, even I, a man of Kurdish upbringing and a friend of his, had difficulty believing him. How could a government which was a member of the UN and had embassies everywhere dare to use banned weapons to inflict such lingering deaths on its own citizens on a such a large scale! It took us three days to put a paragraph in the paper. The horrifying pictures emerged much later. So Saddam got away with it, and he was emboldened. Margaret Thatcher even proclaimed that the reports were ‘controversial’ and so doubled Saddam’s Export Credit Guarantees to £390m.
Hopefully now, the new Saddam will not dare do it again. He has been punished to the minimum extent possible, but significantly enough, and must know that if he persists he might lose the whole of his airforce . And we must welcome America’s hardening of tone on his future. Nor am I worried about a confrontation with Russia. Putin would be humiliated in any aerial confrontation with Western airforces. He is only a paper tiger allowed to flourish by weak Obama.

In the end, however, out of concern for the survival of the Alawite minority in Syria, we must hope and work for a negotiated settlement in which – without the Assad regime – they would have a veto over a future constitutional settlement. The same must go for the Kurds of Syria, whose valour and resilience in standing up against Ankara and Islamic State have surprised even me and earned the admiration of the world.

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On the Donald: How worried should we be?

On the Donald:

I’ve been recently saying to my friends and family that Trump’s mannerisms reminded me of Mussolini. Having watched his acceptance speech this morning, I’m a little less worried in that respect. It was statesmanlike and let us hope he meant most of it.

There is also the truth of American democracy not being about one man. The Republicans have only a small majority in Congress and the Supreme Court will similarly not prove the rubber stamp he will hope it to be, even when he appoints new judges to it. Nor should we forget the press and the strong civil society in the US. One more factor is that Trump will now relax and realise that he needs practically-minded experts in every direction.

So, altogether, I’ll be sending emails to our American friends not to be disheartened too much. In some ways, if their democracy has now got in touch again with the people, rather than remain the preserve of law-makers who’ve forgotten the pain of their electorate in these ‘globalised’ times, that may not be a bad thing in the long term. Even in the shorter term, I’m not afraid that America will desert Europe or sell out the Ukrainians and other east Europeans to Putin. The Donald is now the boss and he will be ‘Washington Man’. His extremist well-wishers will be disappointed.

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Report of a high-level private debate on Brexit in London on June 14, 2016

I’m writing this for those of my friends who would have enjoyed being present the other day in London as a distinguished panel of speakers argued whether we should vote to remain or leave in the EU next week.
The gathering is called The Global Strategy Forum and was founded by Michael Ancram a few years ago. It’s been very successful in attracting influential speakers. They are keen to be there, for when it comes to question-time, you feel as if half the audience comes from Parliament and the other half are ambassadors. We usually meet in the large David Lloyd George Room of the National Liberal Club on the Thames Embankment (to which I belonged for a decade or so in the 90s). Another good thing about the GSF – apart from the delicious lunch it gives us beforehand! – is that television cameras are not allowed in and so the speakers relax and can be more frank. They feel they are among friends.
In this case, what I’m going to tell you is not private, subject to the so-called Chatham House Rules. The speakers have already said all of it in public.
The chair was taken by Sir Menzies Campbell, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, and he managed to remain fair and neutral. It was good to see him again, though I was taken aback by how suddenly aged he looked. Though standing upright like a soldier, he looked extremely grey. Age often descends on us too quickly. Some years ago ‘Mengies’ fought and survived cancer. I’m glad he put up with all that chemotherapy, for our sakes, as well as his own and his family’s.
On the panel were Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Conservative foreign secretary, Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary and the architect of Tony Blair’s liberal immigration policy, Norman Lamont, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer on Black Wednesday, and Michael Ancram, a Tory ‘grandee’ and former Defence minister in the Thatcher government.
The first three’s stance didn’t come as a surprise to me. Rifkind and Straw have in recent years been passionately pro-EU, and Lamont’s turning away from Brussels is equally well known. What surprised me was Michael Ancram’s change of mind. I’ve always thought of him as on the left of the Tory party and could often not distinguish his thinking from that of his many close friends in the Labour and Liberal parties. The explanation must be that he is also the 13th Marques of Lothian. He suffers his share of ‘aristocratic guilt’. He told us that he loved Europe and his grandmother was an Italian. But the EU had become a threat to the stability of the whole of the whole continent and he didn’t want to hand over to his grandchildren the problems that it was now stacking up for Britain.
The first to speak was Lamont and he surprised us by the way he viewed the EU’s single market. He told us that it was really a sham and a hindrance to trade between members, not a help. He said that non-EU members paid a tariff of 4% on the goods and commodities they exported to Europe. Members paid no tariff, but as Britain had to make a net contribution of between 8 and 9 billion pounds for its membership each year, it ended up paying the equivalent of 7% on the things it sold to other EU members. If we left, we would pay 4% only and, in addition, we would be free to strike our own deals with the rest of the world.
Second to speak was Rifkind who paid absolutely no attention to what his former cabinet colleague had just said about the single market. In his powerful Ciceronian oratory, he devoted the whole of his seven minutes to praising it.
Now came Ancram. Beside what I reported of his speech earlier, he said that the did not believe David Cameron for a second when he said that Britain could stop the EU becoming a closer political union until it became a single country, with national parliaments acting only as provincial councils. The process happened, not in formal treaties, so that Parliament and the press noticed, but in stealth, little by little, under your nose, forced on you by officials in Brussels.
The last to speak and equally passionate was Jack Straw who talked of the EU’s peace-keeping role. He said that the long peace we had enjoyed since 1945 was not just due to NATO. NATO protects us from the outside. The EU keeps peace inside. I saw one man shake his head. I thought I knew what he was thinking: The days of the Kaiser and the Fuhrer were long over. Lamont disagreed and ridiculed the head of the European Commission Donald Tusk. He had said a few days earlier that if Britain left the EU, “political civilisation would come to an end”.
We now had 30 minutes left for questions from the floor. Among those I remember speaking was David Hannay, the former British ambassador to the United Nations and, perhaps more relevantly, one of the diplomats who had negotiated Britain’s entry into the EU in 1973. He was strongly for Britain remaining, but was attacked by a member of Parliament who used the sentence: It’s no good for Lord Hannay banging on about this point!
I had planned, in the interest of enjoying the occasion, not to speak. Furthermore, I sat next to two old friends who had just told me how emotionally attached they were to ‘Europe’ (as in fact am I). They are Raymond Hylton, a lovely man who, as a descendant of prime minister Asquith, has devoted his considerable fortune to getting religious communities to talk to one another. Our friendship began in the 1990s, through my late friend, the Irish peer John Kilbracken. Later, Raymond asked me to travel to Somerset to deliver the main fund-raising speech for a retreat he has set up for people recuperating from mental illness. Until recently, we had an arrangement by which we paid for each other other’s lunch in turns! One month he came to my club, the next I would go to his (the House of Lords). Unfortunately, we’re both going deaf now and lunches are becoming a little hard. The other friend is someone to whom I became close in the course of numerous discussions on television from when Saddam grabbed Kuwait in 1990. Sir Harold Walker – or ‘Hooky’, as we all call him – served as British ambassador in Baghdad, but, I’m glad to say, he was never allowed to meet the Monster in person, as was customary diplomatic conduct.
I must not digress. The discussion drifted inevitably onto the effects of Brexit on immigration into Britain, and, as you all know, large-scale immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, has worried me for years. Fear of the rise of the far right which normally follows large-scale immigration from one culture into another caused me to join the Council of Migration Watch UK as far back as 2008. In addition, MWUK had just brought out a detailed report on the prospects for immigration if we remained in the EU. Our experts had announced that there would be an average of 275,000 new immigrants into Britain over the next 20 years if we remained, including many of the present wave of Syrian and other refugees who are settling in Germany and elsewhere. 275,000 is the equivalent of a city the size of Southampton every year in a country which is already congested in many places and where government services such as health and education are causing popular discontent. By coincidence, as we spoke, I noticed that some in the audience carried copies of The Times (for which I wrote for over 20 years). On a prominent page that same day, the paper was reporting that the EU was now issuing 900,000 European passports to immigrants, of which the majority were from Morocco and other Muslim countries. That figure is bound to rise hugely when the new refugees acquire European citizenship in five years and are then allowed to bring over their dependants.
So I rose to speak, but to shouts of ‘speak up, we cannot hear you’ from the back of the hall. As a result, (and perhaps sensing that I was going to be on his side,) Michael Ancram passed me his microphone! I began by saying that I hoped everyone had read our report. It had been covered by BBC television and the newspapers. Then I asked the following question: “As a writer on the Middle East, all my reading suggests that Islam in large numbers has never lived in peace with any of its host communities. How many members of the panel think that the humanitarian principle of giving permanent residency to large numbers of refugees, especially Muslim refugees, justified the risk of greater political instability through the rise of the far right?” I could have gone on to speak of my fear of the return of fascism to Europe, France first of all, from which I had just returned. But I knew that the chairman would cut me short, as time was running out.
Straw, whose former constituency of Blackburn has a large Muslim presence, was the obvious person to answer first and, as I expected, was in denial. The bulk of EU citizens who came over were not Muslims, he said, and, in any case, we in Britain had successfully integrated our Muslims. There was no problem. I raised my hand to ask that if he were right, why had Britain in recent years quadrupled the number of its spies watching the population for terrorism? Why the waste of all these billions on security? Were the police really worried about white grandmothers in airport queues when they force us to take off our shoes, or the Muslim men with bushy black beards? But Mengies would not allow secondary questions.
However, Lamont interrupted Straw: “All the new refugees and the previous immigrants will have the right to come and settle here”, he shouted. It was Rifkind’s turn to throw up his hands in horror as he growled at Lamont: “That will require 20 years”, he roared. Straw came back, but to his credit: “No, no, six years, six years”.
In the brawl, Mengies forgot who had spoken and who had not. So he didn’t let Ancram have his turn. It would have been interesting, for he would have given a considered reply.
As we rose to leave, a general of the army, whose name I’m not at liberty to mention, came over to say hello and that the panel did not really address my point. An Armenian diplomat came over and asked me whether I was one of his people. I said I wasn’t, but that a former president of his country had authorised me to call myself an honorary Armenian. He could trust me!
A former soldier, who’s now a professor of international relations in London and a fellow of an Oxford college, accompanied me for coffee to the other side of St James’s Park. He said that he had been unsure how to vote next week. Now he was certain that we must leave.

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Peter Cave on my review of Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions

Those of my few ‘followers’ who liked my recent review of Bryan Magee’s latest book may like to know that I lost a little sleep after posting it. Who was I, I said to myself, an amateur reader of philosophy, to be so bold as to criticise Magee? I shared my worries with the philosopher and London University don Peter Cave, and he reassures me that I’m not mad. Peter is, of course, a close friend, but a man of great integrity and high standing as chairman of The Humanist Philosophers Association. I do not believe that, despite his famous wit, he would put any thought into writing without meaning it. Nevertheless, my discomfort persists, though somewhat less intense, and I will therefore go on following the ‘mid-body’ debate among the philosophers. Links to Peter’s own books can be found on his website http://www.PeterCave.com .

Dear Hazhir,
I have read your review and it comes over as generous and thoughtful and admiring, even with the criticisms.

With regard to the criticisms, well, you are standing up for views held by many philosophers, yet also disputed by many. Yes, of course, the term ‘soul’ has religious connotations, but it can be used without them — to point to whatever the ‘I’ designates (if anything), to the self. Bafflements regarding how to handle the self persist, as do those regarding how we are to understand the relationship between consciousness and neural states and activities. I have sometimes written of concepts such as the self and free-will as muddled or mythical concepts that we cannot live without.

As for scientific progress regarding understanding the world, well, I’m inclined to proclaim: ‘who knows?’ Theories can have radical revision. So I would await with interest, though given my age, the wait will lack sufficient duration. A highly respected atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, for example, has recently published on why, in his view, neo-darwinism is probably wrong:

“… the widely accepted world view of materialist naturalism is untenable. The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. No such explanation is available, and the physical sciences, including molecular biology, cannot be expected to provide one. The book explores these problems through a general treatment of the obstacles to reductionism, with more specific application to the phenomena of consciousness, cognition, and value. The conclusion is that physics cannot be the theory of everything.”

Yes, lunch with Brian Magee is a splendid idea.

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