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Wednesday 8 June 2011

The Theatre of Life: Remapping the Middle East at the LSE (“Libyan School of Extremism”?)

The motto of the London School of Economics (LSE) is “rerum causas cognoscere”: to know the causes of things. In my Amsterdam home the LSE coffee-mug carrying this motto is practically an extension of my right hand. As an LSE alumnus, I regularly receive LSE's public-relations journal LSE-Connect. On page 28, its latest issue (Summer 2011), carries an apology by the editor. The object for the apology is a piece on the LSE's Middle East Centre which had appeared in LSE-Connect's Winter-issue. This item had contained a map of the Middle East which omitted the name of a country that should have been on it: That country was Israel.

The editor of LSE- Connect, Claire Sanders, makes the point that this omission gave rise to negative reactions from many LSE alumni. As a result she apologizes for any offence caused. She also goes on to say that the map in question had not been provided by the Middle East Centre whose task is quality research on all countries in the Middle East, including Israel. The editor goes on to inform her readers that the omission was an oversight and has been “put right” on the electronic version of the magazine on the LSE's web-site. Putting it right however did not involve adding Israel to the map but removing the map altogether from the item on the Middle East Centre on the web edition of LSE-Connect magazine. The editor further emphasises that the erroneous map had not been provided by the LSE Middle East Centre.

So, does someone who has been taught at the LSE believe he now knows “the things and their causes”? Let's look at things first. Let's assume that all we are told by LSE-Connect's editor is true. If so, does she tell her readers all that is relevant?

Unfortunately not. A little research turns up additional relevant facts that throw doubts on the causes put forward:

  • A separate map of the Middle East on the Middle East Centre's website also omitted Israel's name. So even if the map used by LSE Connect was not the same, the map of the LSE centre had made the same mistake.

  • When alumni pointed out this mistake to the then Director of the LSE, Howard Davies, he stated that it had been an oversight by the printers. He also stated that The Middle East Centre had “corrected the error” on its website by removing the map (and not by putting in a corrected map).

  • Two out of 4 members of the Management of the LSE Middle East Centre are prominent campaigners for the boycott of Israeli Universities. The Middle East Centre states that it aims to work with universities in the countries of the Middle East that it is researching. How credible is this, if half of its management is committed to boycotting universities in Israel? What coincidence that the printer made his mistake just on this country!

  • A critical report on the LSE's Middle East Centre was published in February by the NGO Student Rights which fights extremism on campus. ( I am a member of its advisory board).

Well, perhaps these are just too many coincidences for an LSE alumnus who is proud to have studied at the LSE and was encouraged to look at “things and their causes”. The apology which suppresses relevant facts is more appropriate for an institution whose mascot is a weasel rather than the LSE whose heraldic animal is the beaver. An institution whose current interim Director was the head of its Geography Department, Professor Judith Rees, should be able to correct errors on a map by producing an accurate one (not just removing the faulty one altogether). The gaping holes that once had incomplete maps of the Middle East should swiftly be replaced with maps showing all the countries of the Middle East correctly.

My LSE coffee mug is still in Amsterdam; but I suspect even a mug would find it difficult to take certain explanations proffered by the LSE at face value.

Motto of the London School of Economics

Monday 6 June 2011

The Secret of the Notebook, book by Eve Haas published by Harper & Collins (2009), 4* out of 5

The Jaretzkis are an upper middle-class Jewish Family from Berlin who in 1934 flee from Germany to the safety of the Hampstead neighbourhood of London. Hans Jaretzki is a prominent architect of the Bauhaus School. On her 16th birthday he shows his daughter Eve a notebook that has been in the family for generations. The notebook contains an inscription by Prince August of Prussia (1779-1843) the illustrious nephew of the Frederick the Great of Prussia to his wife Emilie Gottschalk. Emilie is Hans Jarecki's great-grandmother. The Jarecki family, though Jewish, are thus descendants of Prince August. Prince August is not just any member of the German Royal family: he is a General and a key organiser of the Prussian Army who will play a major role in Napoleons defeat and represent Prussia at the Vienna Congress that establishes the European Political order following the Napoleonic Wars. His adjutant is von Clausewitz, whose writings are still the gold standard of military strategy and required reading in modern Military training schools.

In 1970 Eve Jarecki-Haas, who has inherited the notebook on her father's death begins a long search into her family history supported by her husband Ken Haas. How come a Jewish family can claim to be descendants by morganatic marriage from a most prominent member of the German Hohenzollern Royal family? And how did Eve's grandmother, the grand-daughter of Prince August, who lived in Prague at the time of World War II become a victim of the murderous German-Nazi machine that targeted the Jews of Europe?

The Secret of the notebook is the literary equivalent of a musical fugue consisting two thrillers wrapped into one. The first concerns the machinations at the Prussian Court during the Napoleonic Wars and beyond in the Potsdam and Berlin of the early to mid-19th century. The second takes us into the Europe of the late 20th century. The totalitarian communist regime in East Germany is very much intact and unaware of its imminent demise.

Eve (Jarecki-)Haas book tells the story of her search and the many twists and turns of her family history that it reveals. She is an accomplished writer and raconteur. For anybody with even a passing interest in European history the book is a page-turner with a plot-line that would do justice to the most fertile mind of writers of historical fiction. But this is a fascinating true story and an exciting read.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Hanna, action film, written by Seth Lochhead, David Farr, directed by Joe Wright, starring Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, 4* out of 5

In the cold wilderness of the North of Finland, 16-year old Hanna Heller is being trained for a dangerous personal mission by her father Erik an ex CIA Agent. Years earlier, Erik Heller was involved in a secret experiment to create ruthless and effective soldiers with the help of genetic engineering techniques. Soon Hanna will embark on her mission, in which she will pit her wits and fighting skills against a rogue senior CIA agent (played by Kate Blanchett) and her brutal German neo-Nazi helpers.
Hanna is a James Bond-style action film with a hard edge. The main hero and the main villain are both female. After Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, Hanna Heller is the next interesting female action-hero to appear on our screens. The film combines humour and suspense with exciting action scenes playing in Morocco, Spain, France and Germany. The direction and photography are of high quality. Hanna the film has an intelligent plot and is highly entertaining. Cate Blanchett in the unusual role of the evil villain is a success. Saoirse (pronounced Surshah or Seershah) Ronan in the main role is a star in the making.

For fans of action films everywhere, Hanna is definitely worth seeing and an interesting addition to the existing gallery of action-heros. Screenwriter Seth Lochhead initially developed the screen play as his project for a screenwriting course at the Vancouver Film School. Plans for a sequel or two are probably in the making already.

And I And Silence, by Naomi Wallace, Finborough Theatre, London, 4* out of 5

In the southern part of the 1950's US, Jamie and Dee are both 17 years old and in prison. The two girls, both from difficult underclass backgrounds form a friendship: Jamie is black, Dee is white. By making plans about how they will make an honest living in domestic service and help each other at the end of their nine year sentence they are able to sustain hope and belief in the future. The friendship even survives Dee's transfer to another prison three years into her sentence. What was possible in confines of a prison proves impossible when, having gained their freedom, the two young women are released into freedom. The friendship and love between Jamie and Dee holds, but the young women are stretched beyond breaking point by the cruel, hostile world they are faced with.

This understated play holds the audience's attention from beginning to the end, it is moving and poetic; its title is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. What the play has to say about prison, friendship across racial boundaries and sexual harassment of women in domestic service still holds true across too many countries and cultures.

Beautiful performances from the four actresses, the older Jamie (Cat Simmons) and Dee (Sally Oliver) and their young selves (Cherrelle Skeete and Lauren Crace), confirm the Finborough Theatre as a premier London address for new plays of high quality. It was good to see the performance sold out with a predominantly young audience. This play and production deserves nothing less.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Ruby Wax Losing It - Two Women Show, created and performed by Ruby Wax & Judith Owen at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 3.75* out of 5

With the help of singer songwriter Judith Owen, Ruby Wax turns the laser beam of her zany comedy on her life: growing up in Florida with eccentric Viennese Jewish parents, getting into acting school in Britain, the give and take of marriage (explained in inimitable Ruby Wax style), being a mother and descending into the personal hell of depression. The latter being very challenging not only for oneself but also one's nearest and dearest.

Wax and Owen also cover the process of emerging from the experience of battling depression. Increased self-knowledge, gained through psychotherapy and reflection helps. Very useful too is knowledge about the illness and, not least, assistance from appropriate drugs. Judith Owen's songs lyrically and musically supplement Ruby Wax's stories. This combination works.

Throughout the show Ruby Wax turns the observational laser beam on herself and those around her. Everyone, particularly a depressed person, needs a friend who understands and is supportive; Judith Owen and Ruby Wax clearly are such friends to each other.

Clinical depression is a mental illness and as such carries a stigma that physical illness does not. Well-meant advice from friends and family to “perk-up” is not helpful. The show was originally developed for other depressed people and performed in clinics specialising in its treatment. Wax and Owen seek to create understanding for the fact that depression is also has aspects of a physical illness of the brain. Antidepressants really help put the physical mechanisms of the brain back in order. Understanding the mechanisms and “thought-circuits” that lead into the depth of clinical depression can sometimes help the sufferer stop its onset. At the end of the show there is an opportunity to ask questions of the two protagonists.

Notwithstanding its partly pedagogic intent, Losing It manages to be funny, intelligent, honest and moving.