Answer to random query

A few weeks back (maybe even a few months back) someone asked me, or else I saw a question posed to the internet at large, about the World SF Writers Conference held by Harry Harrison in Ireland in 1978 and whether there was any information about it on-line.

While looking for something else today, I discovered that John Brosnan’s contemporary write-up of it has been republished here. (Presumably not by Brosnan himself, as the livejournal entry is dated September and he died last April.)

If you asked me the question, sorry for not remembering who you are and replying directly.

[Edited to add: I see the person responsible for putting it online is .]

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February Books 12) 9Tail Fox

12) 9Tail Fox, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I very much enjoyed Grimwood’s Ashraf Bey trilogy, though was a little less convinced by either his earlier redRobe or his more recent Stamping Butterflies. I’m glad to report (IMHO) a return to form. Like the Ashraf Bey trilogy this is essentially a police procedural in a somewhat alternative history version of a famous port city with distint sfnal overtones to do with technological brain enhancements. (So we have identified what he does well, then.)

This time the city is San Francisco, however, and the central character is killed on page 30 – only to wake up, like Corwin in Nine Princes in Amber, in a hospital in upstate New York; and he spends the rest of the book solving his own murder. The basic plot has of course been done before, but I love Grimwood’s intense and often sultry writing style; and here he successfully transfers it to a new setting, with memorable characters.

I still had a very slight feeling, after we found the solution to the mystery, that it might not hang together all that well if I inspected it too closely, but the ride was such good fun that I won’t look. I suspect this makes my Hugo shortlist, though am hoping also to read Air, Learning the World, and Never Let Me Go before the deadline. (Already on my list: A Feast For Crows, Anansi Boys, Counting Heads and probably Accelerando.)

A final point – I can’t help noting that this is the second book by JCG featuring a scene with teenagers meeting for the first time in business class on a long-distance flight and spending the journey making out. There is presumably a true story there, waiting to be retold.

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February Books 11) The Space Merchants

11) The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Classic sf, published in 1952, that had somehow passed me by – I thought I remembered a scene where advertising executives were reassuring young politicians that is is just about possible to make a living as a senator, but it’s not in this book, so I guess I must have read the sequel written by Pohl on his own decades afterwards.

The satirical future setting, in which corporate interests have taken over the world, is a little heavy-handed (“You know the old saying. Power ennobles. Absolute power ennobles absolutely.”) but the basic story of the narrator’s redemption holds pretty well. I thought I picked up a couple of nods in the direction of both Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I don’t think you could really recommend this as a “gateway” sf novel but I can see why it is still remembered.

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February Books 10) Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation

10) Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839, by Frances Anne Kemble

Well, after my grumbling about her latest biography, I thought I should put my theory to the test and dowloaded the shorter of her two works from Project Gutenberg.

And it’s really good. Published in 1863, this is a series of letters from Kemble to her friend E[lizabeth Sedgwick] describing her four months as the wife of a Georgian plantation owner, and going into considerable detail about the living conditions of the slaves. It is horrific stuff, an eloquent argument against slavery, published twenty-five years after the event in a deliberate attempt to undermine British sympathy for the Confederacy in the middle of the Civil War. I haven’t read any of the editorials in the Times that she is reacting to, but I do remember the right-wing British press on apartheid, Northern Ireland, and (more dimly) Rhodesia. Sadly, I have little difficulty in imagining pompous British journalists of the day trying to reassure their readers that slavery was actually a very good deal for the slaves. (It is also a shameful fact, remembered by few, that Irish nationalists of the 1860s sympathised with the Confederacy too, as they sympathised with the Boers at the end of the century.)

Bearing in mind that the author was an actress, I was alert for clues that the letters might have been somewhat revised for publication to put her case in the best possible light. But I ended up doubting that this was the case – there are enough internal repetitions that a good editor would have taken out to ensure a better flow of the narrative. I am sure that she did delete certain more personal details about her husband and daughters, but I feel that otherwise this is pretty much the horrified account of a thirty-year-old woman trying (and ultimately failing) to come to terms with the society she had married into, rather then her fifty-five-year-old self retrospectively justifying it; a famous and glamorous English actress, who had married a rich and charming young American and only gradually come to a realisation of exactly how his family’s fortunes were sustained.

Her very first letter, critiquing a letter from her husband trying to convince her that slavery was all right really, sets forth several of her key political points. For instance, on the education of slaves:

I do not admit the comparison between your slaves and even the lowest class of European free labourers, for the former are allowed the exercise of no faculties but those which they enjoy in common with the brutes that perish. The just comparison is between the slaves and the useful animals to whose level your laws reduce them; and I will acknowledge that the slaves of a kind owner may be as well cared for, and as happy, as the dogs and horses of a merciful master; but the latter condition — i.e. that of happiness — must again depend upon the complete perfection of their moral and mental degradation. [My husband], in his letter, maintains that they are an inferior race, and, compared with the whites, ‘animals, incapable of mental culture and moral improvement:’ to this I can only reply, that if they are incapable of profiting by instruction, I do not see the necessity for laws inflicting heavy penalties on those who offer it to them. If they really are brutish, witless, dull, and devoid of capacity for progress, where lies the danger which is constantly insisted upon of offering them that of which they are incapable. We have no laws forbidding us to teach our dogs and horses as much as they can comprehend; nobody is fined or imprisoned for reasoning upon knowledge, and liberty, to the beasts of the field, for they are incapable of such truths.

She goes on to tackle mixed-race relationships (“amalgamation”):

I am rather surprised at the outbreak of violent disgust which [my husband] indulges in on the subject of amalgamation; as that formed no part of our discussion, and seems to me a curious subject for abstract argument. I should think the intermarrying between blacks and whites a matter to be as little insisted upon if repugnant, as prevented if agreeable to the majority of the two races. At the same time, I cannot help being astonished at the furious and ungoverned execration which all reference to the possibility of a fusion of the races draws down upon those who suggest it; because nobody pretends to deny that, throughout the South, a large proportion of the population is the offspring of white men and coloured women.

At the end of the first letter, she then combines the two themes of mixed-race relationships and education:

Now it appears very evident that there is no law in the white man’s nature which prevents him from making a coloured woman the mother of his children, but there is a law on his statute books forbidding him to make her his wife; and if we are to admit the theory that the mixing of the races is a monstrosity, it seems almost as curious that laws should be enacted to prevent men marrying women towards whom they have an invincible natural repugnance, as that education should by law be prohibited to creatures incapable of receiving it.

And finishes with a dig at her husband, and a flourish on behalf of her own country:

As for the exhortation with which [my husband] closes his letter, that I will not ‘go down to my husband’s plantation prejudiced against what I am to find there,’ I know not well how to answer it. Assuredly I am going prejudiced against slavery, for I am an Englishwoman, in whom the absence of such a prejudice would be disgraceful.

The rest of the book confirms that slavery was every bit as awful as one might have thought, going into what livejournal users would call TMI about the female slaves’ gynaecological problems (I’m frankly stunned that she was able to publish this kind of thing in the 1860s, in England or America) and other questions of diet, hygiene, education, religion, and (in one memorable passage) fleas:

There is one among various drawbacks to the comfort and pleasure of our intercourse with these coloured ‘men and brethren,’ at least in their slave condition, which certainly exercises my fortitude not a little, — the swarms of fleas that cohabit with these sable dependants of ours are — well — incredible; moreover they are by no means the only or most objectionable companions one borrows from them, and I never go to the infirmary, where I not unfrequently am requested to look at very dirty limbs and bodies in very dirty draperies, without coming away with a strong inclination to throw myself into the water, and my clothes into the fire, which last would be expensive. I do not suppose that these hateful consequences of dirt and disorder are worse here than among the poor and neglected human creatures who swarm in the lower parts of European cities; but my call to visit them has never been such as that which constrains me to go daily among these poor people, and although on one or two occasions I have penetrated into fearfully foul and filthy abodes of misery in London, I have never rendered the same personal services to their inhabitants that I do to [my husband]’s slaves, and so have not incurred the same amount of entomological inconvenience.

That phrase, “entomological inconvenience”, is just superb, isn’t it? It pulls together the language of polite society and scientific discourse with the horrid squalor of the life of the poor, especially the enslaved.

Finally, she decides to leave, but to try and leave something good behind her at least as regards one particular slave:

I certainly intend to teach Aleck to read. I certainly won’t tell [my husband] anything about it. I’ll leave him to find it out, as slaves, and servants and children, and all oppressed, and ignorant, and uneducated and unprincipled people do; then, if he forbids me I can stop — perhaps before then the lad may have learnt his letters. I begin to perceive one most admirable circumstance in this slavery: you are absolute on your own plantation. No slaves’ testimony avails against you, and no white testimony exists but such as you choose to admit. Some owners have a fancy for maiming their slaves, some brand them, some pull out their teeth, some shoot them a little here and there (all details gathered from advertisements of runaway slaves in southern papers); now they do all this on their plantations, where nobody comes to see, and I’ll teach Aleck to read, for nobody is here to see, at least nobody whose seeing I mind; and I’ll teach every other creature that wants to learn.

Alas, this is a very brief up-tick in her mood. Much more typical is a letter where she writes of the slaves coming to beg her intercession on their behalf with her husband for clemency, including this horrendous story:

Another of my visitors had a still more dismal story to tell; her name was Die; she had had sixteen children, fourteen of whom were dead; she had had four miscarriages, one had been caused by falling down with a very heavy burthen on her head, and one from having her arms strained up to be lashed. I asked her what she meant by having her arms tied up; she said their hands were first tied together, sometimes by the wrists, and sometimes, which was worse, by the thumbs, and they were then drawn up to a tree or post, so as almost to swing them off the ground, and then their clothes rolled round their waist, and a man with a cow-hide stands and stripes them. I give you the woman’s words; she did not speak of this as of anything strange, unusual or especially horrid and abominable; and when I said, ‘Did they do that to you when you were with child?’ she simply replied, ‘Yes, missis.’ And to all this I listen — I, an English woman, the wife of the man who owns these wretches, and I cannot say, ‘That thing shall not be done again; that cruel shame and villany shall never be known here again.’ I gave the woman meat and flannel, which were what she came to ask for, and remained choking with indignation and grief long after they had all left me to my most bitter thoughts.

I went out to try and walk off some of the weight of horror and depression which I am beginning to feel daily more and more, surrounded by all this misery and degradation that I can neither help nor hinder.

I leave her with this conclusion, actually from one of the earlier letters, in conversation with one of the local dignitaries:

Thank heavens there were people like her prepared to bear witness to what slavery actually meant. There’s much more here (and so little of it touched in the woeful Jenkins biography), but I must finish for tonight.

One last thought. I find it difficult to sympathise with her husband; but one thing I did pick up between the lines of the biography was this. Fanny Kemble made her name as Juliet, and that is presumably who Pierce Butler thought he was marrying, as a Romeo from the other side of the Atlantic. But from her teenage years, her favourite Shakespeare character had been not Juliet, but Portia, who symbolised for Fanny the virtues of feminine assertiveness but also a thirst for justice and mercy. It is good that she got to live out her ideals; it is unfortunate that her husband does not seem to have bothered to inquire what they were before they married.

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February Books 9) The Einstein Intersection

9) The Einstein Intersection, by Samuel R. Delany

Nebula winner from way back. I quite liked this at first, with the re-telling of the Orpheus and other myths very reminiscent of Zelazny's This Immortal and of Anderson's "Goat Song" which must have been writen at almost the same time. But it got a bit rambling and disjointed at the end. Also any author who inserts bits of his own writing journal into the text is just showing off. I'm rather surprised that this beat both Zelazny's Lord of Light and Silverberg's Thorns, but then I have often been surprised by Nebula winners. (The other two nominees were Chthon by Piers Anthony, which I haven't read, and The Eskimo Invasion by Hayden Howard, who I haven't even heard of.)

OK, six Nebula winners left to read.

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Nebula final

List now out. I said what I thought of the short fiction in greater detail here.


Air, by Geoff Ryman
Camouflage, by Joe Haldeman
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Polaris, by Jack McDevitt
Orphans of Chaos, by John C. Wright

I have no intention of reading the Haldeman, McDevitt or Wright unless they win. I bought Air last week, and have read both Going Postal and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. No particularly strong feelings; I would quite like it if Pratchett wins in recognition of his general achievements in the genre, though this is not his absolute best book, but I will not be at all surprised if Susannah Clarke makes the double (indeed triple counting the World Fantasy Award).


“Clay’s Pride”, by Bud Sparhawk
“Identity Theft”, by Robert J. Sawyer
“Left of the Dial”, by Paul Witcover
“Magic for Beginners”, by Kelly Link
“The Tribes of Bela”, by Albert Cowdrey

As long as the dreadful Sparhawk story doesn’t win, I’m happy enough. I imagine the smart money must be on Kelly Link. (Interesting that no extra stories have been added to the list.)


“The Faery Handbag”, by Kelly Link
“Flat Diane”, by Daniel Abraham
“Men are Trouble”, by Jim Kelly
“Nirvana High”, by Eileen Gunn and Leslie What
“The People of Sand and Slag”, by Paolo Bacigalupi

“The Faery Handbag” was on the Short Story preliminary list and has been moved here. I like it best; the only one of the others I really liked was “Men Are Trouble”. Slightly surprised not to see Cory Doctorow’s story make it.

Short Stories

“Born-Again”, by K.D. Wentworth
“The End of the World as We Know It”, by Dale Bailey
“I Live With You”, by Carol Emshwiller
“My Mother, Dancing”, by Nancy Kress
“Singing Down My Sister” [sic, presumably “Singing My Sister Down”], by Margo Lanagan
“Still Life With Boobs”, by Anne Harris
“There’s a Hole in the City”, by Richard Bowes

I liked the Bailey, Harris and Bowes stories, and didn’t quite get the Emshwiller or Kress ones; the Wentworth story seemed pretty silly to me. raves about the Lanagan story (in fairness, a lot of other people do, he’s just the first to come to mind) so I hope this will mean it is put on-line so I can read it!

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Friday joke

After numerous rounds of “We don’t know if Osama is still alive”, Osama himself decided to send George Bush a letter in his own handwriting to let him know he was still in the game.

Bush opened the letter and it appeared to contain a single line of coded message:


Bush was baffled, so he emailed it to Condi Rice. Condi and her aides had no clue either, so they sent it to the FBI. No one could solve it at the FBI so it went to the CIA, then to the NSA. With no clue as to its meaning they eventually asked Britain’s MI-6 for help. Within a minute MI-6 cabled the White House with this reply:

“Tell the President he’s holding the message upside down.”

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job applicant correspondence

From: X
Sent: 23 February 2006 12:12
To: Nicholas Whyte
Subject: Application

Director Mr. N. WHYTE,
Please find attached my continued interest in your work: CV incl. letter.
Yours sincerely,

From: “Nicholas Whyte”
To: X
Subject: RE: Application
Date: Thu, 23 Feb 2006 18:23:02 +0100

Dear X
Thank you for your email.
You don’t appear to have any expertise (or indeed interest) in international politics in the area where we work, so I think I must recommend that you try elsewhere.
Nicholas Whyte

From: X
Sent: 24 February 2006 10:21
To: Nicholas Whyte
Subject: RE: Application


Indeed it has been very difficult to find an entrance/platform into the field of international relations/politics/diplomacy, but it is my main interest and subject. Often they require several years of work experience etc. and therefore it seems to be impossible to start somewhere, and often it is about unpaid traineeships.

Thank you anyhow for the attention.

Yours sincerely,


From: “Nicholas Whyte”
To: X
Subject: RE: Application
Date: Fri, 24 Feb 2006 11:18:04 +0100

Dear X,
I am sorry for my brusque previous reply. On reviewing your previous letter, I note that you did in fact mention your interest in international relations, in half a sentence about two-thirds of the way into it.
I am going to give you two important pieces of advice.
1) I looked at what you had written to me and assumed that you were just sending applications at random to people in Brussels, and perhaps you had some more personal reason for wanting to be here. I guess from your second email that in fact you want to apply for one of our internships here. If so, you should have been very specific about that; it was not at all clear from your letter.
2) Indeed it is difficult to get started in international relations. One first step, which I strongly recommend, is that you should try and get a place on an international election observation mission through [your country’s] foreign ministry, either via the OSCE or the United Nations. It is an easy way to get short-term experience in the field and work out if this is the sort of life that you want. The fact that you have helped out with elections in [your own country] will surely count in your favour.
Based on your CV, I’m afraid that right now you would not be a serious candidate even for an unpaid position here. I am attaching the CV’s of those who have worked with me as interns in the past, since I started in this position almost four years ago. They will give you some idea of how to present your qualifications and interest better.
Nicholas Whyte

From: X
Sent: 24 February 2006 11:52
To: Nicholas Whyte
Subject: RE: Application

Thank you very much for this. And indeed I tried of course to get short-term contracts via [her country’s government and foreign aid organisations] several years ago, but they require experience and referees. The answer in [her country] is always the same – that it is very difficult.

I did also try, for several years now, all the TA (technical assistance) offices in Brussels, and here the situation is the same, they insist on 5-10 years of experience.

In fact, I had an unpaid offer from you in 1997/98, [my current employers] Brussels office. However, it was not possible to finance an unpaid traineeship.

Yours sincerely and thanks again.,


From: X
Sent: 24 February 2006 16:39
To: Nicholas Whyte
Subject: RE: Application/ Brussels, Paris, New York, [home city], London……………….

And of course, no there are NO personal reasons for wanting to be in Brussels. I have been searching both in Brussels and [my country] as well as in other places around the world. It has more to do with the CONTENT, RELEVANCE and SUBSTANCE of the work, and not the city. Assumptions ???

From: “Nicholas Whyte”
To: X
Subject: RE: Application/ Brussels, Paris, New York, [home city], London……………….
Date: Fri, 24 Feb 2006 18:37:59 +0100

Don’t get me wrong, I am simply saying that your application did not make it look as if the nature of the work was particularly important to you. If you have been trying without success for several years to get into this line, maybe there is a fundamental problem with the way you have been approaching it. I don’t know what you have sent to others, I can only comment on what you sent to me. Take my advice or not as you like.
Nicholas Whyte

From: X
Sent: 24 February 2006 18:53
To: Nicholas Whyte
Subject: RE:

Mr. Director N. WHYTE,

Thank you, however, I do not believe a word of it…..I have another work going on.

Have a nice week-end !


From: “Nicholas Whyte” <>
To: X
Subject: RE:
Date: Fri, 24 Feb 2006 19:12:02 +0100

Well, if that’s your attitude, I’m not surprised you have found it difficult to break into this line of work.

From: X
Sent: 24 February 2006 19:32
To: Nicholas Whyte
Subject: RE:

OK fine and dandy !!

Good Luck !!

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Job application

As some of you know, I like to give out free career advice from time to time. (Often unsolicited; I hope not too often unwelcome.) I’m also in the position where I get a fair few people just emailing me their CV’s and asking if I had a suitable opening; to which the answer is usually no (literally once, in my almost four years here, has the right CV hit my desk just at the moment when I really needed to hire someone with those qualifications).

Got one this week which struck me as peculiar even by the variable standards of such things; a Scandinavian woman of about my age who said she wanted to move to Brussels, whose CV was full of decent enough academic credentials but not in any relevant field. I sent her a pretty brusque reply,

You don’t appear to have any expertise (or indeed interest) in international politics in the area where we work, so I think I must recommend that you try elsewhere.

She has now sent me a reply saying,

Indeed it has been very difficult to find an entrance/platform into the field of international relations/politics/diplomacy, but it is my main interest and subject. Often they require several years of work experience etc. and therefore it seems to be impossible to start somewhere, and often it is about unpaid traineeships.

Well, if that’s true, it would have helped if she had said so in her original covering letter, which instead looked as if she perhaps wanted to move to Brussels to be with her partner and was just randomly firing out CV’s and found my contact details somewhere (they are not difficult to find). I will send another more detailed reply now, giving my usual tips about how to get started in international relations (election observation being the easiest first step to take) and recommending that she be a bit clearer in future applications about what exactly she wants and why she is bothering to apply.

Edited to add: Exchanged a couple more emails with her during the course of the day, and it rapidly became apparent that she was simply not interested in my advice. If that’s her attitude to getting free tips from a moderately senior professional in the field, I’m not surprised that nobody will hire her.

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February Books 8) Fanny Kemble: The Reluctant Celebrity

8) Fanny Kemble: The Reluctant Celebrity, by Rebecca Jenkins

I got interested in Fanny Kemble after reading The Last Journey of William Huskisson last summer. In that rather clunky historical book, her uncluttered prose was a breath of fresh air. Amazon revealed that this biography had recently been written about her, and I spotted it and bought it in Vienna airport this morning.

I’ve given up. I was perturbed to realise that I had got half-way through the book and she was still only 20 years old; only when I looked at the author’s website just now did I realise that this is in fact just the first of two volumes. There is almost no hint anywhere on the dustjacket that the book takes us only through the first thirty years of her life (her theatrical career and the early years of her disastrous marriage), leaving the other fifty yet to come. I feel cheated and angry.

I wouldn’t mind if it was a good book; but it isn’t. It is a simple summary of Fanny Kemble’s own memoirs, with a vague attempt to throw in some historical context here and there, and the author’s own rambling speculations as to the motives of Kemble and her relatives. The editing is uneven; the text repetitive; and the footnotes absolutely absurd on occasion – example:

In the summer, when the Covent Garden season was finished, it was Charles Kemble’s habit to travel to Paris to scout the French theatres for suitable plays to transfer to his stage.*

* The first decades of the nineteenth century suffered from a total lack of decent British playwrights. So English managers would hop over the Channel to Paris to seek out the best French material to translate and adapt for the London stage.

Truly horrible. A competent editor (indeed, a competent sixteen-year-old student) would have rewritten it pretty easily as a single sentence with no footnote necessary. There are many more like that.

On the few occasions that Jenkins (who it turns out is the daughter of the former Bishop of Durham) allows us to hear Kemble’s voice, the vastly better quality of her subject’s writing style (and her welcome self-deprecation and humour, a startling contrast to Jenkins’ treatment of her) really shines through:

When I went to bed last night I sat by my open window, looking at the moon and thinking of my social duties, and then scribbled endless doggerel in a highly Byronic mood to deliver my mind upon the subject, after which, feeling amazingly better, I went to bed and slept profoundly, satisfied that I had given “society” a death-blow.

It reads like the kind of person whose livejournal entries I would find entertaining.

I think to get to know Fanny Kemble properly I’ll have to actually just buy her own books (or download them from Project Gutenberg), and cut out the middle-woman. Or else look out for a shorter, better, biography by someone else.

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February Books 7) Little Women

7) Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Well, it’s a step towards my reading resolutions. Good, wholesome stuff, so wholesome that I really really need to read some Lovecraft/Alcott crossover fiction. What eldritch lore was Mr Brooke so fascinated by? What did the girls really have in their picnic baskets? What did Amy discover when she fell through the ice? Enquiring minds want to know…

My only two close encounters with this book before I read it were, first, Edward Eager’s classic The Time Garden, in which some children from the late 1950s go back almost a century and have an afternoon with the March girls; and second, the attempts of Sandi Toksvig on the BBC’s Big Read to persuade us to vote for it. Since it is one of the widely recognised classics of English literature, I went out and bought a Penguin edition combining Little Women, Good Wives and an extensive critical apparatus of endnotes and editorial preface; and bounced pretty much straight off it.

Anne reminded me that we also had a copy of hers in the house, and indeed it turned out to be one she had been awarded as a school prize when she was ten; a battered old Puffin edition, with illustrations by Shirley Hughes. Somehow I found this much more approachable; it was much easier to keep the characters of the girls sorted out with the visual reminder that they were all different sizes.

So I read it – it’s easy enough going – and I can see why people like a novel of well-drawn mainly female characters, of a family under stress. But I found it all really too wholesome for me – I almost cheered when Meg drank too much champagne and got hungover, but that is the closest we get to debauchery. I was complaining the other day about authors who stretch me too much; I’m afraid this didn’t really stretch me enough.

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…and again

Doing BBC World live at 1730 British time (1830 European, dunno when in the US but in about an hour and a half anyway).

Of course, the day I get to do a live TV interview is also the day I forgot to shave before coming into the office. Right, where can I find a razor…

ETA: Well, it’s been cancelled, for reasons the Beeb are somewhat embarrassed about, but I am too gentlemanly to go into detail about them here…

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Vienna Part 2

We finished our evening in Vienna at the residence of the ambassador of a small but friendly European country. As I entered the reception room I saw one bloke at the far end scowling at me. I had no idea who he was, but quickly discovered that he has been the head of an international mission which I criticised really trenchantly in a report we published last year. I had in fact heard that he was now in Vienna working for the Special Envoy, and knew that he was a citizen of the country whose ambassador was our host, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I decided to take the bull by the horns, strolled over and introduced myself. “So, you’re working for the Special Envoy now, I hear?”

“No!” he grumbled. It turned out he had been offered a more permanent but less glamorous job elsewhere in Vienna. I did not ask, but I suspect our report may not have greatly improved his career prospects. (Though I would add that if he had run his mission better, we would not have written the kind of report that we did.)

He found an excuse to talk to someone else almost immediately, and did not talk to me or my colleagues, or even engage in eye contact, for the rest of the evening. Fortunately it was a buffet and we dotted ourselves at will around the reception room, rather than a formal dinner with a seating plan. It would have been a bit embarrassing to have to sit anywhere near him.

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Visit to Vienna

So, I thought I had it all worked out: land in Vienna at 1 pm, see Austrian diplomats at 2.30; my boss would also be landing at 3 pm, he had another meeting at 4 pm and we could see the UN Special Envoy together at 5 pm.

Except when I landed I found a voicemail from the UN Special Envoy’s office saying, sorry, they suddenly had to go to Italy and could only see us at 3 pm. Called my boss, just getting onto his plane in Brussels; he was furious. Got into town and decided to see what would happen if I showed up in the Special Envoy’s office at 2.30. (The Austrian diplomats were happy enough to postpone to 5 pm; it turned out they had another meeting at 3.30.)

Indeed, that worked out; the Deputy Special Envoy agreed to see me immediately (he has featured here before). Had a good chat with him before he disappeared off at 3.05 to see the Austrian foreign minister at 3.30 (which explained why the Austrian diplomats I had spoken to earlier were happy to postpone my meeting with them).

By this time a) my boss had phoned to say that he was zooming straight in from the airport and b) grumbling noises were emanating from the next office where the Special Envoy himself was struggling with his new communications device. (The Special Envoy has also been mentioned here before.) After twenty minutes I was finally ushered into his presence. At precisely that moment my boss appeared looking ever so slightly flustered. But we had a quarter of an hour’s pleasant conversation before he had to go off to see another senior UN official also based in Vienna (for reasons which are obvious if you look at the report we published on Thursday), and then I managed another ten minutes with the Special Envoy on my own before he threw me out so that he could get to Rome.

People have been asking me why it is that the Special Envoy’s recent remarks bear such a close resemblance to the report we put out a week ago, with an undertone of us taking orders from him – or possibly, from the more paranoid commentators, the other way round! Little do they realise just how chaotic the communication between our two offices has been; it was the first time I had seen the Special Envoy in over a year and I had hardly been in touch with his deputy since our day in Slovenia together in September. What it does show is that we are on the same wavelength in broad terms, even if there is occasional static.

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Blink, blink

Still waiting for confirmation on Mladic arrest – sounds a bit less likely than I’d hoped. Oh well.

But we finalised the text of the long-brewing report on Cyprus, at last!!!!!

And I’m off to Vienna for 24 hours tomorrow. Bed now.

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Bektashi humour

In memory of the late Baba Tahir Emini, I’ve been reading up on his sect, the Bektashi. I was aware, from my conversations with him and with others, that they are of a mystical Sufist tradition, preach tolerance, love, and peace, and consider some of the traditions of orthodox Islam regarding the role of women and the use of alcohol to be distractions from the truth. I was unaware that they are also associated with a particular sense of humour, and that there are a whole set of Bektashi jokes told by the faithful about themselves. Some of them don’t translate awfully well, but one of them I feel sure I’ve heard in an Irish version:

One day the Sunni friends of a Bektashi dervish insisted that he go to the mosque to pray the Friday prayer. As he took his seat in the congregation the hodja spotted him. Wanting to embarrass the dervish, the hodja began to lecture on the evils of alcohol. He began describing in detail all of the natural and religious reasons why drinking any alcohol at all is bad. To prove a point that even animals won’t drink liquor the hodja asks “If you put a bucket of water and a bucket of raki in front of a donkey, which will it drink?”

Someone in the crowd answered, “The water of course.”

“Why so?” enquired the hodja.

Unable to hold himself, the Bektashi exclaimed “Why so? Because it’s a donkey!”

There are other jokes that I think could not be told in any other context than an Islamic one:

A Bektashi was in a mosque one day listening to the hodja give a sermon. He was half asleep when the hodja began talking about the pure virgins that awaited the faithful in heaven.

When he heard the word heaven, the Bektashi came to himself and asked the hodja excitedly, “Hodja efendi will wine and raki be served to the faithful in heaven?”

The hodja became furious and shouted back, “You pagan, what do you think heaven is… a tavern?!”

The Bektashi replied likewise, “Hah! What do you think heaven is… a whorehouse?!”

But I am particularly intrigued by the jokes with a certain universailty, but which also presuppose a very close connection between the Bektashi mystic and God, to the point that certain things are expected as of right from the relationship:

One day, the weather grew very hot. Burdened with thirst, a Bektashi dervish decided to buy a watermelon with some change he took out of his pocket. With watermelon in hand, he found a beautiful shade tree to sit under where he proceeded to slice up his watermelon with great appetite. However, after putting the first piece into his mouth, he found it so sour that it was difficult to eat. He began shouting complaints to the Creator, “Alas my God! Are you so stingy that you can’t even put a little sugar in this watermelon. You always bestow favors on Your servants, but never with what is really needed!” Thus swearing, he finished off the watermelon in spite of its tartness and threw the rinds to the side.

After a while he saw a poor waif, half dead with hunger and thirst, approaching. Not wishing to be bothered, the Bektashi sat still and pretended to be asleep. The poor man came close, saw the watermelon rinds and began to eat them. Discreetly, the Bektashi observed the poor man out of the corner of his eye. He saw with astonishment how each time the poor man took a bite of rind he exclaimed, “My God, many thanks to You! You nourish me in spite of everything with this watermelon rind. You have ensured my subsistence!”

Hearing this, the Bektashi became furious and rose up. He shouted, “Enough of this! I ate the inside of that melon even though it was bitter and torturous and believe me, I let Allah know it. But you! You eat the foul-tasting rind and you thank Him for it? It’s this kind of cheap flattery that encourages Him to keep making poor quality watermelon!”

Anyway, my research will continue.

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Little Great Old Ones

Has anyone out there ever tried writing crossover fics between the worlds of Little Women and H.P. Lovecraft? After all they share a New England setting, and are separated by only half a century. If there isn’t any already out there, perhaps one of the gifted fic-writers on my friends list would like to try?

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Reviews by me

Old ones from the Ethnic Conflict Review Digest, 1998-2000:

Making A New Nation, ed. by Danica Fink-Hafner & John R Robbins (about Slovenia)
Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood, by Anastasia N Karakasidou (about Greek Macedonia)
Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton, by David Chandler
Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1999, by Sydney Elliott and W.D. Flackes with John Coulter

The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest 1998, Vol. 1 No. 2

Making a New Nation, Danica Fink-Hafner & John R Robbins eds (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1997) 330pp. bibl. Hb. ISBN 1-85521-656-6. £42.50.

The small southern European republic of Slovenia seems in some ways to have escaped the ethnic conflicts which otherwise characterised the break-up of Yugoslavia. The economy is undeniably the most successful in Eastern Europe; elections are free and fair, with a viable multi-party system; the country itself is charming, if not very exciting. The government vehemently favours joining the EU and the single currency at the earliest opportunity – even the car number-plates are difficult to distinguish from those of neighbouring Austria. The ‘native minority’ Hungarian and Italian populations, a few thousand each in a country of two million, are constitutionally protected with guaranteed parliamentary seats.

But as recently as 1991, Slovenia was part of the same country as Bosnia, as Kosovo, as Macedonia, as Croatia which then had a substantial Serb minority (and no longer does). And the many Slovenian-registered cars which can be seen on the roads of Bosnia today demonstrate that the largest ethnic minority currently living in Slovenia are the tens of thousands of Bosnian refugees who migrated during the war. Although Fink-Hafner and Robbins’ collection of papers tends to present Slovenia as a historic nation newly liberated from an alien Yugoslav state, a less comfortable truth peeks through the contradictions between Janko Prunk’s historical introduction (pp. 21-30), Drago Zajc’s review of the changing political system (pp. 156-171), and Bernik, Malnar and Toš’s essay on the paradoxes of Slovenian democratization (pp. 56-82). This last is one of the most interesting contributions, presenting polling data from 1980 to 1994, including the 1990-91 independence process. The authors point to the sudden crystallisation of support for secession from Yugoslavia in 1990, and to continuing poll evidence of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, to argue that Slovenian political culture is not as whole-heartedly democratic as it is usually portrayed.

Much of the rest of the book concentrates on economics in Slovenia alone. John R. Robbins, who as well co-editing the collection is its only non-Slovene author, contributes an insightful prologue (pp. 1-20), which discusses the problems of democratization, ethnicity and pluralism in a global context, and also an epilogue (pp. 278-294) measuring Slovenia’s “attainment of viability” and prospects for long-term stability. Ethnic homogeneity is no guarantee here; however Robbins’ main concern is the political system’s shallow institutional roots. He is frank about the problems facing a small European nation struggling to enter the New World Order, but basically shares the optimism of his fellow contributors.

Nicholas Whyte, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs – Croatia

The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest 1999, Vol. 2 No. 1

Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood, Anastasia N Karakasidou, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). 334pp. Index. Bibl. £30.50; ISBN 0-226-42493-6, £30.50. Pb.: £14.95; 0-22642494-4.

This is a gripping and moving account of the construction of Greek nationhood in a municipality near Thessaloniki. Using both oral and official history, Karakasidou reveals how the inhabitants of the town once called Guvezna and now known as Assiros were altered from an Ottoman cocktail of Turks, Slavs and Greeks to the mono-ethnic culture present there today. The space left by departing Turks and Slavs after the town came under Greek control was partly filled by refugees forced to resettle in Greek Macedonia after the disastrous war of 1922. They mostly spoke Turkish themselves as a first language, but, like those Slavic speakers who remained in the town, they became assimilated during the course of the twentieth century. “In many ways,” the author concludes, “the past has become very much a foreign country to the Assiriotes”. (p.217)

But this book is not just about Macedonia, it is about nation-building. Karakasidou complains that “while there is overwhelming concern among Euro-American politicians and diplomats over what nationalism has brought to Eastern Europe in recent years, many seem unaware of the fact that nation-building processes are a longue durée“, (p. 146) and she describes the process in all its brutality. War, religion, politics and capitalism all contributed to constructing the ‘official narrative’ of this particular nation in this particular place over the last 120 years.

Cambridge University Press declined to publish this book, fearing attacks on their Greek staff if the crisis over the official name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia were to escalate. Fortunately it did not, and many Greeks now look to their new northern neighbour as a business opportunity rather than a military threat. Perhaps Karakasidou’s courageous research helped to open up the space in which this became possible. There may be hope for all of us.

Nicholas Whyte, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest 2000, Vol. 3 No. 1

Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton, David Chandler, (London: Pluto Press, 1999) 239pp. Index. Bibl. £45.00; ISBN 0-7453-1408-2. Pb.: £14.99; ISBN 0-7453-1403-1.

David Chandler subjects the international community’s efforts to impose democracy on Bosnia and Herzegovina to a rigorous analysis. Beginning with a critique of the concept of democratisation, he gives a chapter each to the issues of sovereignty, power-sharing, human rights, political pluralism, and building civil society, and concludes that the West’s democratisation policy has been driven more by an “external dynamic” of post-Cold War security concerns than by the needs of the country, or indeed of the region. The book is well referenced and includes URLs for the many documents cited from the Internet.

The catalogue of failures in the process of Bosnian democratisation is indeed dismal, but at times Chandler over-eggs his pudding. For instance, on p. 77 he says that in the summer of 1997, “NATO troops occupied the public buildings in Banja Luka, handed them over to [Bosnian Serb President]Mrs Plavsic and disarmed local police loyal to the Pale faction, while a British officer sat in Mrs Plavsic’s office answering her phone.” Police stations were indeed occupied by NATO (and Czech) troops, but other public buildings were not, and the police were disarmed only of items not often included in day-to-day police work elsewhere such as rocket launchers and grenades. Many strange things did happen to the phones in Banja Luka, including my own, during that dramatic time, but I do not recall the incident described relating to Mrs Plavsic’s office.

He also underrates the admittedly modest achievement of the “multi-ethnic” parties in the 1997 municipal elections by stating that they won only 6% of the seats, compared with 5% the previous year. There was considerable variation in the number of seats in each municipal assembly/council, and when votes rather than seats are tallied the “multi-ethnic” parties got more like 10% in 1997.

Chandler is undeniably right to point out that the democratisation of Bosnia has not been successful, as demonstrated by the steadily increasing legislative authority of the international community’s High Representative (not the “United Nations High Representative” as Chandler calls him). He is right also to suggest that the logical development of current policy is towards protectorate rather than democracy. However it is difficult to concur with his key recommendation of simply “granting people greater autonomy”. The international community stood back in 1991-92 when the war began; this should not be repeated. The biggest gap in this book is Chandler’s dismissal of the importance of the process of European integration of Eastern Europe. That is the most hopeful future direction for Bosnia and its neighbours.

Nicholas Whyte, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels

Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1999, Sydney Elliott and W.D. Flackes with John Coulter, Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 730 pp, index, hb, £30.00, ISBN 0-85640-628-7

Since its first edition in 1980, this directory has been an essential reference tool for anyone interested in the politics of Northern Ireland. The fourth edition was published early in 1994, just before the paramilitary ceasefires. It was exhaustive, authoritative and definitive – up to that point. However it contained little information on the new groups and personalities that came to prominence in the six dynamic years that followed. The new fifth edition, completed during a pause in the peace process in summer 1999, therefore has a tough act to follow. It does not completely succeed. This is particularly true in the “Dictionary of Northern Ireland Politics” section which lists key personalities, themes and events of the Troubles in alphabetical order. One of the joys of previous editions was their wealth of detail on obscure politicians who won an election sometime in the 1970s (or earlier). For the new edition, this should have been judiciously pruned. More space should have been given to those who were elected to the Northern Ireland Forum in 1996 and the new Assembly in 1998, some of whom have entries only two lines long. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition gets only a short entry, and the Northern Ireland Labour group which also participated in the 1996-98 talks has no entry at all. A leading supporter of the Orange Order’s “right to march” is listed, but the leaders of the residents groups opposed to her are not.

There are a number of inaccuracies relating to the most recent period – John Alderdice was not a candidate in the 1994 European election (p. 155); names such as Glendinning (p. 211) and Ramaphosa (p. 443) are misspelt. Besides the “dictionary” section, the other parts of the new edition – a chronology, lists of office holders, notes on security and systems of government – have been updated as necessary. One high point: in the section listing election results, the descriptions of the most recent campaigns are vivid and accurate. This book is still essential, but the new edition is merely useful rather than excellent. I am looking forward to the seventh edition.

Nicholas Whyte, Centre for European Policy Studies

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A change is in the air

Classic from Dave Barry (f-locked because of copyright)

When people ask me, ”Dave, what’s it like to have a newborn baby in the household?” I immediately answer: ”…”

This is because I am sleeping. I spend a lot of my day in an unconscious state, because my 2-month-old daughter, Sophie, does not believe in sleeping at night. She feels that the nighttime hours are best used for making loud, inexplicable, Exorcist-style noises. At 3:30 a.m., her bassinet will suddenly start shaking like an unbalanced clothes dryer and erupt with a wide range of squeaks, gurgles, chirps, snorts, snuffles, grunts, etc. It does not sound like there’s a lone baby in there. It sounds like the entire Barnyard of the Demons. (Which would be an excellent name for a band.)

Sophie routinely makes noises that cannot be explained by the known laws of physics. Recently, some friends came over to admire her, and we had her all dressed up in a cute little baby outfit featuring little bloomers with cherries on them, and while everybody was gathered around admiring how sweet and delicate and innocent she looked, Sophie — who is, physically, no larger than a standard pumpkin — cut loose with a series of massive, resonating, bloomer-inflating bodily blasts that you would think could be produced only by a 350-pound man who had just won a burrito-eating contest. If I had not been holding her firmly at the time, I believe she would have propelled herself, missile-style, through the ceiling.

”How … cute!” our friends said, as the aroma wafted around us, fog-like.

I’m not saying that all Sophie does is make noises. As a brand-new human being with an inquisitive mind, she is also exploring the mystery and magic of the world around her, by which I mean she is trying to get her hands completely into her mouth. This is her primary goal in life.

Her arms and legs constantly wave around in a random manner, and every now and then, when a hand happens to land on her mouth, she becomes excited and starts sucking on it like crazy. But then, without warning, the arm yanks the hand away, which makes Sophie VERY angry. If she ever finds out who is operating her arms, she is going to give that person a piece of her mind, if she ever figures out how to talk.

Yes, it’s an exciting time in our household, a time of learning and growing and having plastic bags of frozen breast milk in the freezer next to the Tater Tots. In our family, we strongly believe in breast-feeding, which has many benefits, the main one being: Men cannot do it. Not that I don’t contribute! I’m always giving my wife useful breast-feeding pointers, such as: ”Time for you to breast-feed her!” And: ”Time for you to breast-feed her again!” And: ”I would gladly breast-feed her, but, tragically, I am a man.”

(Actually, I suspect that men CAN breast-feed; it’s just that, in the entire history of the human race, no man has ever actually tried.)

I do change diapers. A LOT. It is a known baby fact that babies put out far more material than they take in; physicists now believe that babies account for most of the matter in the universe. If you were to stack up all the diapers I have changed in just two months, one on top of the other, you would never be invited to a party again for the rest of your life.

Our house would smell like a malfunctioning sewage plant, except that we have a product called the Diaper Genie, which encloses diapers in a long, odor-proof plastic bag. As a parent, I believe this is the greatest of all humanity’s inventions, including low-fat Cheez-Its. You take your diaper, you put it into your Diaper Genie, you twist the plastic bag, and, as the French say, Voila! (Literally, ”You are not smelling any more the poop.” )

When your Diaper Genie fills up, you open the bottom and remove an amazing, 15-foot-long, segmented, caterpillar-like Chain of Doodies. We’ve been throwing these away, but it seems to me we ought to be turning them over to the U.S. Air Force as a potentially devastating military weapon.

Another excellent item of modern baby technology is the battery-powered swing. When your baby is in a bad mood because she cannot get her hand inside her mouth, you put her in this swing and let it rock her gently into a blissful state of suspended baby animation lasting long enough that sometimes you can actually take a shower. This device works so well that I think we should make a larger version and use it to calm hyperactive adults.

If you’re a psychiatric professional who would like to explore this idea, let’s schedule a meeting. I want to sleep on your couch.

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February Books 6) Europe and the Recognition of New States in Yugoslavia

6) Europe and the Recognition of New States in Yugoslavia, by Richard Caplan

Richard Caplan has featured here before. This is a good, brief (but very expensive!) book on all aspects of the European Community’s recognition of the successor states to the former Yugoslavia in 1991-93. It is particularly timely as just this last week (in a development so far ignored by the international press) the EU has been at it again, imposing dubious conditions on the forthcoming independence referendum in MontenegroYugoslav People’s Army in Slovenia and Croatia, though as it turned out that was a pale shadow of what was to come elsewhere. Europe’s recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in December actually came in December 1991, six months after the fighting started, so therefore cannot have caused it.

Indeed, there is a good case that the recognition of Croatia in particular helped to regularise the situation there and achieve a ceasefire that lasted for more than three years – a point first made to me way back before I got into the Balkans by the Norwegian scholar Asbjorn Eide, and repeated with convincing detail here. On the other hand, the ostensible purpose of the delay in recognising Croatia – ensuring a better minority rights regime for its Serbs – failed completely; they were already in open conflict with Zagreb and therefore not interested in the EC’s proffered constitutional bells and whistles.

Caplan does not make such a good case for the defence on Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he considers EC recognition to have been the spark that set the conflict going. In my own view, he fails to make a good case which is there to be made. Again the dates simply don’t check out; the fighting started in Bijeljina, a town I have since got to know rather well, in the first days of April and had spread to Sarajevo before the European recognition had been decided. To an extent, of course, this is pedantic; once Croatia and Slovenia had been recognised by the EU, the BiH leadership (of whom I am not a big fan) faced the choice of remaining in a federation dominated by Milošević, with the likelihood of a pro-Milošević coup before too long in Sarajevo as had already happened in Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro, or else going for such international support as they could get as an independent state, despite the consequent risk of a civil war. There is much to criticise about the way Izetbegović handled the situation, and one could also argue that the EU’s recognition of Slovenia and Croatia thus “caused” the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the fact is that the responsibility lies with Milošević, whose policies had driven Slovenia and Croatia to secede and who had overseen the arming and organisation of secessionist Serbs in BiH (a former acquaintance of mine features in this narrative), much more than with Izetbegović, still less the Europeans.

On Macedonia and Kosovo, Caplan makes the very good point that delaying recognition probably increased rather than decreasing ethnic tensions there, particularly as for Macedonia the delay was over an issue (the name of the country, of its largest ethnic group, and of their language) which was purely an irrational hang-up of the Greeks, but one which the other eleven states failed to confront properly (and have failed to this day). Kosovo is a slightly different matter; while I agree that the distinction between former autonomous provinces and former constituent republics is a rather spurious place to draw the limit for units of self-determination, the fact is that Kosovo (or at least Rugova’s government of the time) was much farther from satisfying one of the key criteria for international recognition: it did not have control over its own territory, even to the imperfect extent that Croatia and Bosnia did over theirs.

There’s a lot more in this book. Caplan makes a good argument overall that although the process may have appeared arbitrary and purely political, in fact by invoking international law the Europeans constrained their own freedom of action in significant ways, and their intentions were certainly to minimise the likelihood of present and future conflict. His discussion of the use and effectiveness of political conditionality in the last chapter is equally fascinating. Conditionality in general is much rarer than I had realised, and if it doesn’t always appear to be very effective, at least it doesn’t seem to be harmful. The conditions placed on the new Balkan states were heavier than those that were placed on Eritrea and Bangladesh, and (though Caplan doesn’t make this point) that was probably a good thing in the end.

Where conditionality fails, it is either a) because the local circumstances are unfavourable (though even then, if it can tie into the agenda of an opposition party that can be helpful) or b) because the international community does it unconvincingly. The Europeans’ attempts to use conditionality suffered more from the second problem than the first. Their refusal to contemplate even the slightest hint of the use of force basically concentrated negotiating power in the hands of those who did not have such scruples. Even deployment of the unarmed European Community Monitoring Mission to Bosnia in 1991 was considered to be too interventionist. Civilised and enlightened western statesmen are often squeamish about threatening the use of force, but you have to wave the stick as well as the carrot sometimes.

Finally, I was very struck by Caplan’s observation that conditional recognition actually has a long history in this part of the world: minority rights regimes in the new states were part of the treaty-making process after the first world war that led to the independence of Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; and it goes back still further, to the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, when Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Montenegro were recognised subject guarantees of the rights of minority religious communities. 128 years on, Montenegro is going through the same process all over again, as is Kosovo. I hope something has been learnt in the meantime; and I am more hopeful after reading this book.

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Sad news from Tetovo

Baba Tahir Emini, head of the Bektashi community in Tetovo, Macedonia, has died of a sudden heart attack. He was among the most progressive Muslim leaders in the world. I met him (for the second time) back in August last year.

It’s especially sad to lose him at a time when dialogue between Islam and the West could have done with a few more positive messages. (Though the Balkans have not been a particular problem in this respect.)

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Hmm, interesting…

I got a call out of the blue this morning from a head-hunter – an Italian woman, though based in Spain, looking to appoint someone to run a new “think-and-do tank” (sic) to run pan-European campaigns. I thought at first this was a result of my previous interaction with a Belgian-based head-hunter, but no, it was a totally different set of contacts that put them on to me.

What bothered me about it is that the policy area they campaign in (though it’s one I’m vaguely interested in and probably sympathetic to) is an area of policy that I know almost nothing about. Luckily a friend of mine who works in the next door building does work in a related field, so I took her out for lunch to pick her brains, and was not awfully surprised when she was able to name three other people who she knew and who she would have thought were better suited to the job than me. Odd that the head-hunters didn’t go to them first. (Or perhaps they did, and had their offers rejected.)

I’m interested by my own reaction. I had always sort of said to myself that it is high-level policy work of any kind that atracts me, not the specific international politics/war and peace stuff. But when I put my current week on one side – I’ve spent most of it working on Cyprus, Kosovo and Montenegro, and have to go out shortly for a meeting with the European Commission’s new Special Envoy to Azerbaijan – and balance that against the otherproposed policy area, important and vital though it is, I am just not really excited by it. So in fact it really is the specific policy area that I like, and not the broader nature of the work.

But hey, it’s nice to be asked!

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