Monday, 30 May 2011

The Cheese of the Day is...

In one of those rare-but-essential occasions when Four Thousand Words gets distracted by the utterly frivolous, I have responded to popular demand and today's blog entry will be about cheese.

Cheese! Milk-based wonder sent down from heaven to enrich the lives of future heart attack victims everywhere. The reason that Jacob's crackers were invented. Nutritional and cultural staple throughout large sections of the developed world, as varied in its appearance, smell, taste and texture as any generic food type known to man.

In these circumstances, it seems appropriate to choose a Cheese of the Day - but which one?

When choosing a cheese, I feel that you have to start with a country of origin. England has a growing reputation as a cheese producer, with 700 reputed local cheeses in production. The USA leads the world in production volume, making over 4 million metric tons each year. Switzerland, Germany and Finland import and consume over 20kgs of cheese per capita in the same time. Greece have a claim as potential inventors of cheesemaking, as the process is first mentioned in detail in Homer's Odyssey. More romantic souls refer to subtle hints about cheesemaking equipment depicted in tomb murals from Egypt two thousand years prior to that, and it is feasible that informal production may have first begun thousands of years earlier again when sheep were first domesticated by humankind!

Phew. But despite the dizzying scale of the task, I have to make a choice and given their reputation as the world's largest cheese exporter, producer of the some of the finest and most pungent cheeses in the world, not to mention those wonderful, full-bodied red wines that complement the cheeses so well, it seems appropriate to me that the Cheese of the Day would come from that fine land of gastronomic adventurousness, France.

This gives us a wealth of options from which to choose. My own personal favourite, Reblochon, is a nutty French cheese that was popular in Italy up to the 1960s and is an essential ingredient in tartiflette. However, it is not widely known in England.

Another friend recommended Livarot, a hearty-odoured cheese from Normandy that forms an important part of the local festival. I have the quality on good and trusted authority, but due to the lack of availability locally, I can't put it forward without having tried it myself.

In the context of a bunch of grapes or a bacon sandwich, cheese connoisseurs will tell you that only Brie will do. Produced in the Champagne region from whole or semi-skimmed milk, Brie is surrounded by a rind of edible white mould and new varieties of Brie recently produced have seen the inclusion of herbs, fruit and nuts to vary the flavour and texture. France have leaped to the defence of one of their finest exports, designating that only two types of cheese produced (Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun) may be sold under that name.

But despite strong competition, the Cheese of the Day is...Camembert!

Camembert is a soft cheese very similar to Brie and indeed, was reputedly first made in Normandy in the eighteenth century from instructions given to locals by visitors from that region. However it is usually produced and sold in much smaller wheels, meaning that the rind makes up much more of the taste. Camembert gets its distinctive flavour from many naturally-occurring chemical substances, including ammonia, succinic acid and salt. It achieved prominence in the French conscience after being given to their troops as part of their rations during World War I.

Right, enough about food - next time, we're back onto politics or international events. Cheese may be the ultimate convenience food, but in absence of the product itself, I just camembert talking about it any longer.

Thursday, 26 May 2011


Current read: 'Nothing to Envy' by Barbara Demick. The book is an account of the true stories of six North Korean defectors and the circumstances that led to their respective defections. As well as containing a potted history of Korea since its division, the interweaving histories give a number of eye-opening cultural insights and explore the difficulties that defectors have with fitting into society in the outside world. There are amusing observations about the manner in which many North Koreans attempted to outdo one another's mourning efforts following the death of Kim il-Sung, and then the heartbreaking reality of economic meltdown and the subsequent starvation of thousands in the early 1990s. It's an enlightening and powerfully poignant read.

Current music: Anything mainstream, but it's only because I got stuck listening to Egyptian MTV when I was in Sharm el-Sheikh. So I have Ke$ha, Katy Perry and Rihanna. Normal service will doubtless re-assert itself at some point.

Current TV Shows: CSI Miami, starting once again at Series 1 just because I identify with Tim Speedle. Shame he gets shot. It's doubly sad because it seems like hardly anyone goes to his funeral.

Current food: Anything from the reduced sections in Tesco and Morrisons.

Current drink: Coke Zero. As always. It's another thing I have in common with Scott Pilgrim.

Current favourite blogs: Six Impossible Things by my feminist buddy, Layla Ashton. Layla is never short of ways to make you think. Also enjoying the Swiss Ramble, an extremely detailed and superbly researched blog about finance in football. You can see the writer's accountancy background all over his entries, but he has a gift for expressing difficult concepts in layman's terms and he never lets the narrative distract from his obvious passion for the sport.

Current lust: Dr Alice Roberts. Sigh.

Current bane of my existence: On Monday, it was every single person I spoke to! Things have since improved though.

Current excitement: The fact that every time I look at my fish tank, there's another new clutch of babies. Firstly, it's brilliant that the breeding program I have in place is so successful, secondly the fish shop down the road will buy them for 50p a time. I may never be a millionaire, but every new pet in the world is another life improved!

Monday, 23 May 2011

The shame of India's lost girls

Continuing with the pro-feminist agenda of some of my more recent posts and taking the chance to visit some of the international roots at the heart of my interests, I have discovered that the BBC is currently running a number of magazine articles about the Indian census. The results suggest an alarming decline in the number of girls under seven years of age.

The pressure on women to bear male children is intensified by the social pressure upon Indian families to provide dowries - payments of money, goods or land - to a husband's family when their daughters are married. India outlawed dowries in 1961 but the custom is still widespread and the same escalating wages and inequality that we have seen beginning to cause havoc in the Western world are starting to take hold in Asia too, with devastating effects upon the abortion rates.

Another factor in the decreasing number of female births is the increasing availability of sex-determination tests for pregnant women. There are estimated to be in excess of 40,000 clinics providing this service in India today and many of them circumvent the law by failing to register themselves with the government.

In Haryana, the worst affected region of India, there are now less than 830 girls born for every 1000 boys and incredibly, in that region, this represents a significant improvement on the figures from ten years ago. However, in many areas, the number of girls being born is falling steadily and this brings with it massive potential for social problems.

Men in Haryana are now struggling to find suitable brides and have taken to 'importing' them from other states. However, this is not a practise without pitfalls as religious and cultural norms vary tremendously between states and often the brides feel left adrift, unable to cope with different food, weather, attitudes to their presence and even language barriers.

It will take the best efforts of cultural, social and religious leaders to stem the tide of female foeticide. The Indian government is now weighing in with measures to assist the process, giving monetary support to parents who have female children and investing money on the parents' behalf so that those girls may have an acceptable dowry or a college education.

Governments though, can only do so much - and by alleviating the symptoms, they do nothing to tackle the underlying social barriers for women in what is still a largely male-dominated and feudal society. It is only in changing the mindset of the population and doing all that is legally necessary to secure protection for girls before they are born that the worrying trends shown in the 2011 census can be reversed.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

It's not the end of the world

In case you were busy and missed it, this weekend was supposed to be the Rapture. At least, that is according to 89 year-old Christian evangelist, Harold Camping. The US-based radio broadcaster used a Bible-based numerology system to start a campaign that quickly spread worldwide, predicting that the beginning of the end would come for non-believers at 6pm Californian time on the 21st May 2011.

Of course, predictions that the world will end are nothing new. Self-appointed soothsayers preached in the marketplaces of the old world. The industrial era gave us images of sandwich boards bearing messages of doom and now, in the post-modern era, we have the internet when we wish to share our apocalyptic predictions with fellow believers. Hollywood too has jumped on the bandwagon, enlisting Jimi Mistry and John Cusack into an implausible blockbuster based on Mayan predictions that left physicists the world over bleary-eyed.

So it seems we all love a good prediction about the end of the world. Believers have an opportunity to strut around and brag about their forthcoming good fortune while the sceptics gather together in large numbers for anti-Rapture parties, risking a truly epic amount of irony should things really go South. Even the supposedly impartial BBC got in on the act, with a tongue-in-cheek headline of 'Rapture: Believers perplexed' in the wholly predictable aftermath.

Now that the headlines are fading into memory, we should remember some of the genuinely sad stories behind the events of this weekend. There are those who have made preparations for the next world and spent a lifetime's worth of savings on advertising the event. It's easy for nay-saying atheists to shake their heads and wonder at the inherent gullibility of man, but while I am not a believer in God myself, I recognise how it would be important for a believer to prostrate themselves fully before the notion of heaven and ultimate resolution. After all, if you can't subscribe unquestioningly to a higher purpose, can you really call yourself a believer at all?

The Washington Post has since reported that suicide prevention hotlines have been set up in case believers fall into depression after the apocalypse failed to happen. College funds have been spent, homes have been sold and yet, life goes on. The bewilderment will pass. Some believers are already claiming the failure of Judgement Day to materialise is a test of faith from God and they have every intention of persevering.

There have been (admittedly contentious) scientific studies that suggest a link between prayer and improved healing times. Whether you subscribe to this theory or not, the subject-expectancy effect suggests that prayer can aid in recovery, not necessarily due to divine influence but due to psychological and physical benefits. It has also been suggested that if a person knows that he or she is being prayed for it can be uplifting and increase morale, thus aiding recovery.

I believe that we live in an increasingly rational world and that humanism is the way forward. There is no harm in preparing your soul for the next world if you feel it is important to do so, but we should recognise that we have a primary overriding responsibility to the people we live alongside in this one. It should be recognised that whatever else religion could be said to be responsible for, it is probably the oldest organised means of providing charity, support and encouragement to those most in need.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

When rape is serious: a generalist's guide

My goodness me. I think in all the time I have been writing my blog, I may never have picked on a subject more contentious than yesterday's.

Ken Clarke is of course not really the issue being discussed - he is a symptom, if you like, of a male-centric attitude that sees the victims of rape crudely classified into true victims and those who, if they didn't ask for it, could certainly have done more to prevent it. The calls for Clarke's resignation will go on, and he will remain steadfastly unmoved. He did, finally and belatedly, apologise. The political commentators quickly shifted to Ed Miliband's adenoids and his clumsy call for Clarke to resign.

Ed, as he is wont to do, missed the boat. A thoughtful opponent would not have attacked Clarke himself but rather the snide, unspoken Tory cabinet view that the real business in the world is done by tall, masterful men in sharp suits, while the little women decorate the homes, bear the children and suffer their anxieties in private. The very attitudes, in short, that feminists so vehemently oppose.

Truthfully (and there are certainly those who will mock me for stating this openly) the more I read about feminism, the more I am becoming impressed with the arguments it presents. It would simply not have occurred to me as a man that a woman might feel the need to plan a route through a crowded shopping centre to avoid large groups of young men who might harass her. Until it was pointed out to me, it did not occur to me that the issue of how rape is treated in law is a reflection of society's attitude - and not to rapists, but to victims.

I mentioned the subject of rape in the context of Ken Clarke's comments to friends today, a group made up mostly of women, and it prompted a debate that I could scarcely believe I was hearing. There were those who thought that modern men couldn't be expected to know better. Those who thought that testosterone was an excuse for aggressive sexual behaviour. Women, unbelievably, who thought that other women should 'expect to be raped if they behave like sluts.'

I did my best to contribute, stating my belief that there was a clear separation of a woman's need to take responsibility for her personal safety and the responsibility of a man to know that what he is doing is fundamentally wrong. But the discussion continued and the consensus was clear - they felt that 'true' rape (or 'serious', as we have seen it described by Clarke) is a term that should only apply when a victim and assailant are strangers. In familial or date rape, it was felt that there must have been circumstances that caused the man's behaviour.

I was, and remain, astounded and sickened.

One of the more canny people who discussed the subject with me gave me his opinion and then slyly asked me if I would state my own opinion on my blog. I quickly said no; I couldn't have hoped, with the stream of new perspectives I have been offered in the last twenty-four hours, to have an informed opinion on the subject. But reading what I have read since, I have tried my best.

Rape is a horrific crime, and this is reflected in British law by the maximum possible tariff of a life sentence. While there is a difference between constitutional rape and rape, the need for a definition of constitutional rape demonstrates a clear need for the protection of those who are underage, so we cannot get away from the issue of consent. As men, we have to accept the responsibility for our actions regardless of what drives the people we interact with; so yes, a girl is entitled to tease you, show you every aspect of herself physically and then still say no to you. We simply need to accept that. You can make all the arguments you like about men being wired differently to women, but it makes no difference. Simply, we do this by demonstrating maturity and having confidence in our masculinity.

Finally, and no less importantly, we have to challenge the prejudices of those around us in the same way that we would for any other injustice. Victims of rape deserve our support and empathy. The manner in which they have conducted themselves up to that point should not be a concern in our minds.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

When rape is serious: a Justice Minister's guide

Five minutes on Twitter this evening brought up 400+ tweets about Kenneth Clarke. He is fast becoming a household name on both sides of the Atlantic and really has no-one but himself to blame. If Downing Street seems rather relaxed that the Justice Minister (and former practising lawyer) can consider that there is a difference between rape and serious rape, they will be only too aware that the storm on this issue has barely begun.

There are few subjects more stirring to the electorate than female emancipation and equality. While it may be obvious in retrospect that Clarke was trying to distinguish between constitutional rape (i.e. consensual sex with a willing minor) and the kind of sadistic violent rape so beloved of Anthony Burgess' 'A Clockwork Orange', a seasoned politician such as Clarke should know when he is stepping onto thin ice and act accordingly. By making the confused statement that date rape was somehow less serious than other kinds, he has given his opponents all the ammunition they need to show him as being out of touch with women's issues. A swift apology while the show was still running and an immediate admission that he should have chosen his words more carefully were the very least he should have offered. Instead, he will now bullishly face the morning press, his misplaced belligerence a tainted shield against accusations that he is no longer fit to be the Justice Minister.

One suggestion from Twitter that intrigues me is the complete rejection of the use of the phrase 'date rape'. It is felt by some that the classification of a crime in this way somehow trivialises it and contributes to the notion that we have seen implied by Clarke - namely that there are serious offences and less serious offences. I find this argument compelling and am wholly supportive of the idea of doing away with the phrase altogether.

Whether you feel that Clarke's comments have been taken out of context or feel he should burn in hell (and comments from Twitter et al suggest that opinions on the Justice Minister are becoming somewhat polarised) today's interview has thrown the door open on the issue of rape and given us all an opportunity to have a honest discussion about how it should be treated in court. Rape is overwhelmingly (though not wholly) a crime committed by men against women and the pathetic conviction rate of 6% - roughly one conviction for every sixteen reports - shows us that there is still so much more that we need to do to support victims through the court process. Reduced sentences for admission of guilt surely cannot be the answer.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Elections, AV and holidays

You'll hopefully forgive me for the long delay in posting before 1 May and the fact that my post below about the Royal Wedding doesn't go into any great depth with regard to finances or effect upon the national psyche. As an event it's a whole greater than the sum of it's parts - but then, so is the sunny bank holiday weather that has cheerfully swallowed up all of my recent free time.

5 May 2011 is the day when my fellow UK citizens will have a chance to vote in local elections and I would urge you to do so. Turnout in local elections is historically low and tends to go against incumbent governments but the important thing is to be a part of the democratic process, whether you feel that Cameron's economic policy will eventually come good or you just feel like giving Nick Clegg a (metaphorical) kick in the crotch.

UK voters will also have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reject the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system in favour of the Alternative Vote (AV) system. I honestly can't find a single, compelling reason to keep the current inflexible system which encourages an unrepresentative two-party monopoly and virtually guarantees tactical voting, so I will be saying yes to AV. If you haven't made your mind up either way, a full independent guide can be found on the Electoral Commission website. Just remember, if you have ever felt that politicians are all the same and cannot be trusted, this is your chance to make a positive change to the way in which they are selected.

Four Thousand Words will also be taking a short break until the middle of May 2011 as I will be leaving these shores for a few days R & R in Egypt. I have a sweet new hat, some luggage with wheels, my Horatio Caine sunglasses and a lot of flip-flops. I have yet to buy some Imodium.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy comparable temperatures and have lots of fun to boot. I will speak to you all again very soon.

A Right Royal Hoo-Ha

So I've kept quiet about it this long, not least because I reached the point where I was sick of hearing about it. For the most part, I don't read papers or watch TV, and a lot of the time I go out of the my way to avoid talking to other people, but try as I might, I couldn't avoid hearing about the Royal Wedding.

If it wasn't internet articles telling me about the expected audience of 2 billion people or grandiose pieces written by foreign journalists claiming that 'everyone' in Britain is looking forward to it, it was scathing socialist rhetoric about £48 million of wasted public money or the normally excellent Johann Hari conjuring an unconvincing piece about how royalists should frankly be a little bit ashamed of themselves.

Hari makes the point in his article that most of the people in Britain are ambivalent towards the Royal Wedding but regrettably a straw poll of the people I know shows, as ever, that in fact everyone seems to have an opinion. Some think it's a beautiful example of pageantry and will be going down to Westminster Abbey to wave a Union Jack and shed a tear with Her Maj. The ultra-left of my social circle will be holding anti-wedding parties where the curtains are drawn, the TV is unplugged and anti-establishment music is played. Moderates may lament the silence in the streets but they'll happily take the day off work and comment on Kate's dress.

Me? I really don't mind. If Kate and Wills are happy together (and let's face it, none of us really has any clue if they are or not) then I wish them all the best. Be true to each other, I'd say, and let the media machine that supports the monarchy go to hell.

My theory is that Royal Weddings represent a microcosm of that desire for happiness we see in ourselves. There are those who are curious about the inherent possibility, those who reject it beforehand for reasons best known to themselves, those who fall upon it and embrace it like it might be the last chance. Then there are those who stand to one side and observe it, and despite the best will in the world, write about it regardless of how many times they told themselves they wouldn't.