Wednesday, 20 June 2018

By strange twists of fortune to relief for the soul

There are times when we just need to let the stress out. Little does that as well as music. Especially music in good company. Especially when part of the good company is provided by the musicians.

My family’s going through a stressful time. Well, the worst stress is for my mother. At 93, things can go wrong quickly, and they’ve been going pretty badly wrong for her just recently, as she bounces between a hospital and an intermediate care facility, a step down from acute care but still a medical establishment, not home.

She’d done well to get to 93 still able to live in her own flat. There was a part-time manager in her building but no medical care. Until a few weeks ago, my mother has coped with her own cooking, shopping and washing, only drawing on the help of friends when it was offered. Now, though, the pain she has suffered for some years has become worse and a series of other problems have led to her transferring in and out of different forms of medical care, and the sight is a sad one to see.

It’s the harrowing paradox of human existence: none of us wants to die young, but reaching advanced old age is no fun either.

The stress is worst for my mother, but the rest of the family has suffered from it too. So it was wonderful to find relief from it at another concert in the museum in Luton. These take place, as I’ve mentioned before, in the lovely surroundings of Wardown House. On this occasion, the concert involved two violinists playing a series of pieces; an unusual, and attractive, aspect of the event was that they stopped regularly to talk about the music they were playing or their composers. That was fun and it established a friendly rapport between the players and the audience.

Let me quickly indulge in what will feel like a digression, though it isn’t really.

Back the late 90s, a scandal hit the papers. It was a financial matter but not confined to the financial pages. Nicola Horlick was that rare creature, a woman who was a highly successful player in the financial services market. She was managing director of UK investments for Morgan Grenfell Asset Management, until she was suspended in January 1997 and resigned two days later. She was accused of preparing to move to another company, which was the excuse for her suspension; there was, however, widespread suspicion that she had irritated her employers by being far more successful than any woman was expected to be in that profession (or, it was felt, had any right to be).

In 2005, she set up Bramdean Asset Management. One of the partners there was Enrico Alvares. Now, he had a most unusual background to be a financial manager. The son of a professional violinist in Nairobi, he had been more or less obliged to take up the instrument at the age of three. He studied music at prestigious schools in London and eventually joined (by invitation) the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, where he played for ten years.

But then he decided that he wanted to make a little money. So he joined Nicola Horlick and made, in his own words, hundreds of times more than he ever could from music. Hs initial passion, however, never deserted him and in time he decided that money could only go so far. He returned to the violin.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Waite had done something not dissimilar. She had played the violin from the age of two. At eighteen, she went to Cambridge to study English literature and moved into teaching after graduating, including several years teaching English and Music at Pentonville prison.

One night, however, she attended a string quartet concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. She remembers neither who was playing nor what they played. Her principal recollection of that evening was the overwhelming feeling that this was what she wanted to be doing. She had to get back into music.

By different routes, both Enrico and Stephanie found themselves playing in one of the major orchestras, she with the violins, he as first viola. The orchestra was too big for them to meet but, by what turned out to be a happy coincidence, they got to know each other on the homebound train. Soon after, they were married and since then they have frequently given violin duo concerts together.
Stephanie and Enrico: wonderfully performing glorious music
in the beautiful setting of Wardown House
One of those concerts was in Wardown House, which is where we met them.

Two odd and serendipitous paths to that place. Where, by further serendipity, we listened to them at just a time when we most needed the balm they provided.

Life, as my mother’s experience shows, often gets things badly wrong. Sometimes it does them exactly right. And this was one of those occasions.

For that, at least, I’m grateful.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Poor old Jezza - he just doesn't get it

Poor Jeremy Corbyn. He really is completely out of his depth, a man promoted far beyond his level of competence. He flounders and flails and sadly sinks.

Greeted like a pop star at the Glastonbury Festival, he went with his advisers’ instincts and organised his own festival in London, Labour Live. In the end, by dint of slashing ticket prices, they were able to attract a turnout of 13,000, way below expectations.
At ‘Labour Live’: a voice Corbyn should be listening to
Why was the turnout so poor? For the same reasons as he is still trailing the Tories in the opinion polls, even though Theresa May’s government is divided, unpopular and distrusted. He simply doesn’t know how to build a majority.

What threw many of his critics, including myself, at the general election of 2017 is that he won a huge surge of support from young voters. That fooled opinion pollsters who expected that the 18-24 age group would be the one with the lowest turnout, as in most previous elections. But, inspired and mobilised by Corbyn, they confounded that expectation and gave him a far more healthy score than we’d predicted for him.

His supporters presented this as some kind of victory, even though he did in fact all the same come second, and there are still no silver medals in elections. Fail to come top and you’ve lost. What he achieved was a more honourable defeat than had been forecast, but it was still a defeat.

However, there’s something else about that 18-24 age group. It is massively pro-European: 71% voted to stay in the EU. Indeed, even the next age group up, 24-49, voted 54%-46% to remain.

In other words, to hold on to the youth vote, Corbyn needed to adopt a Remain stance. That shouldn’t have been hard since it is, after all, the official policy of the Labour Party he leads. But he has two problems that have led him to make no unequivocal statement on the issue: the first, is that a large proportion of Labour MPs represent constituencies with a Brexit majority and they’re frightened of alienating them; the second, that he has traditionally belonged to the anti-EU group on the left of the Labour Party.

All I can say about the fear of Brexit supporters is that leadership does sometimes involve challenging the views of voters. The greatest fear of working class Brexiters is immigration. Labour will truly sell its soul if it tries to accommodate that kind of xenophobia for electoral considerations.

But when it comes to the Brexit left, I have to say that I’m bemused. The central tenet espoused by these people is that the EU is a neo-liberal institution forcing casualisation of the labour market and poor wages on the working class. This vision seems to suggest that Britain is a nation thirsting for radical change, held back only by the vicious free-market ideology of the EU. The reality is that Britain usually leads the charge towards deregulation. You have only to compare worker rights and labour regulation in France or Germany with Britain to see how much further Britain goes in this direction.

Indeed, many of the rights enjoyed by British workers are protected by the EU against serious objections from entrenched interests in the UK. Unsurprisingly, it is the very people who want to tear up regulation and rights that most strongly back Brexit. The Brexiter left has therefore found itself in bed with some strange people, perhaps most strongly symbolised by veteran left-winger Kate Hoey campaigning in a boat on the Thames alongside the hard-right Nigel Farage.

A shameful moment: left-winger Kate Hoey (right)
with ultra-right winger Nigel Farage (left) campaigning for Brexit
In this context, it’s interesting to see that some of the small band of young people who attended Labour Live hoisted a banner calling on Corbyn to ‘stop backing Brexit’. The truth is that he dodges and evades rather than openly backing Brexit, but I share the suspicion of the banner-holders that he does, indeed, secretly back leaving the EU, lacking only the courage and honesty to say so.

It was interesting to discover from the Guardians Tim Adams, that a group who wanted to raise a pro-Remain banner during Corby’s speech were bundled away and prevented from protesting. So it seems that the Corbyn regime is not only as ready as Blair’s to evade and fudge, it’s also happy to block the freedom to oppose its views. I know I’m in a minority in this view, but it has often struck me how much more Blair and Corbyn have in common than is generally admitted, at least in the way they operate.

Meanwhile, the anti-Brexit voice was gagged at Labour Live (suggesting that ‘Live’ is a bit of a misnomer). But even more striking than the young people who were silenced is the number of young people who stayed away. It seems to me that they too suspect Corbyn of favouring Brexit, and therefore diametrically opposing them on the biggest question of the day.

He doesn’t get it yet, but maybe it’s time Corbyn worked out this was why he couldn’t get young people to a festival, or to back him again in the polls.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Dogs, kids and powerful people

The thing about dogs is that they’re often just like kids.

Sometimes its their most endearing characteristics that are the most irritating. Take, for instance, Toffee, our apricot toy poodle (she’s called Toffee because she’s toffee-coloured, unlike her older and slightly bigger black companion, called Luci, who is of course Luci-coloured). One of Toffee’s favourite pastimes is to have us throw one of her soft toys across the room so she can scamper over to it, skidding and sliding on the floor, to retrieve it and bring it back to us.

She then sits on the sofa next to us with the toy at her feet. I mean paws. She waits for a while. Then she starts to whimper discreetly. Then the whimper becomes a lot less discreet. Finally, she starts to bark. And, if none of that works, she gets up on her rear paws and scratches my shoulder with her fore-claws.

That’s fore-claws, not four claws. There are actually eight of them.
‘So I’ve got the toy and I’ve got it subdued. Now throw it again.’
They’re painful. Besides, they’re not good for concentration. At least, not on anything else, which I suppose is Toffee’s point. But it’s not helpful if you’re watching, say, one of those incredibly dense Nordic thrillers, where you miss one subtitle and you’re struggling to catch up for the next twenty minutes. Worse still, you may have been distracted at just the moment when one of the 87 characters – that feels like something of a minimum for a Nordic noir – has been introduced, so you spend the next two episodes asking ‘is he the boyfriend of the photographer, then? Or the father of the little boy who went missing from the playground?’

This is the point where I make my error. What I should do is tell Toffee to settle down. 'No, Toffee,’ I should firmly say, ‘that’s enough. No more playing now.’

But what I actually do is throw the toy again.

You see the mistake? By throwing her toy I’m doing exactly what she wanted. I’m rewarding the very behaviour that annoyed me so much. So, naturally, she’ll do it again. To buy myself a few seconds of peace – and it really is a few seconds, because it doesn’t take her long to return with the toy – I’m condeming myself to hours more of the same exasperation.

Well, kids are often just like that.

Though the reason they’re like that is that all humans, adult or child, are like that. Reward a form of behaviour and you encourage its continuation.

Take, for instance, three generations of a family of hereditary Korean autocrats. I suppose the fun to be got from generally oppressing, frequently imprisoning and occasionally torturing your unfortunate subjects doesn’t last too long. So you long for something else. Namely, recognition. You want a seat at the big boys’ table.

Imagine how wonderful it must be for such a man to have a US President, no less, invite him to sit down with him at a conference table. As equals. With the same number of flags for each of them. With great imposing motorcades to get to the venue and back from it. And, on top of all that, to have that same US President saying nice things about him, even declaring what a tough job he has, keeping his people starving and downtrodden, and how well he’s doing it.

And all he has to do to get all that is develop a missile and a nuclear warhead that can hit the United States. To get all that applause and smiling recognition. All the delightful baubles that eluded both his daddy and his granddaddy.
Wow! A Kim like a big boy! A proper politician!
Now, here’s the question: will he, as a result of all this fuss, decide to do away with his nuclear arsenal? Or will he, Toffee-like, just keep right on going, perhaps doing away with a few little bits but keeping enough to make sure that he keeps being glad-handed by the US President?

I leave you to answer that for yourselves.

All this might naturally change when there’s a new president with working neurons. But for now, with his own personal Trump to play with, I can’t see what could possibly stop Kim Jong-un carrying on with the fun.

Just like Toffee keeps on wrapping me around her little finger. Or claw, at least.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Pleasure, and a timely lesson, from the Hamburgers

There are more bridges in Hamburg than there are in the whole of Venice and Amsterdam. Taken together.

How do I know that? I was told by a taxi driver. And the word of a taxi driver is not to be doubted, is it? Like the word of a US President. So I haven’t checked. I have to admit, though, that if I havent looked, it’s partly just because I wouldn’t want to find out that it wasn’t true.
The Elbe in Hamburg
In any case, it’s highly plausible. The city has water everywhere. It’s a great port, after all, at the mouth of the river Elbe, and with many channels of its tributary, the Alster, flowing through parts of the city centre. Water, hills and parks make a city, in my view, and Hamburg has the first and last of these.
Water, water, everywhere
Many of the waterways are lined with old warehouses, a reminder that the city was once one of the chief centres of a great trading association of northern Europe, the Hanseatic League. Most German cities like to have their car number plates identified by a single letter – B for Berlin or F for Frankfurt, for instance – because a short abbreviation indicates a great city. Hamburg insists on two – HH for Hansestadt Hamburg, recalling its long commercial traditions.

Hamburg warehouses. And more water, of course.
‘England is a nation of shopkeepers,’ Napoleon once said. I realised just what he meant, and just why he said it, when I was recently reading some material on Britain in the eighteenth-century. In the Napoleonic wars, Britain tried for as long as possible to avoid getting involved in fighting on land in Europe, preferring to limit its military commitments to the sea (trade needed the sealanes kept open, after all). Instead, it offered subsidies to its allies to do the actual fighting. It could offer those subsidies because it was a powerful trading nation, though as I argued here recently, even Britain suffered as embargoes and counter-embargoes were imposed.

Hamburg, like Britain, prospered by trade. A message Brexiters and Trumpistas would do well to remember. Erecting barriers makes nations poorer. Knocking them down makes them richer – all of them: this isn’t a zero-sum game, both sides gain from trade. And war damages them.

Alongside parks and waterways, spires help a city too. My eye was caught by a tall church tower as I was walking between meetings, but I couldn’t get to it just then – I was in the city for work, after all. However, later, having seen a colleague off at the station, I found that my route back to the hotel took me close to it. “I could take a look,” I thought.
The ruined church of St Nikolai in Hamburg
It turned out to be the tower of the St Nikolai church. Only the tower and the chancel survive. The main part of the nave was destroyed in 1943 when the Allies bombed the city, in the aptly – and vengefully – named ‘Operation Gomorrah’. The Royal Air Force bombed at night, the US Air Force by day; the RAF carpeted the city indiscriminately, the USAF targeted military works (such as a submarine factory); a fire storm engulfed the city, leaving a number of dead that has never been precisely determined, some of the corpses having been completely incinerated in the flames.
Picasso evoked the terror of the Nazi bombing of Guernica
The museum in the crypt of the ruined church makes it clear that the chief blame for the horror belongs to Hitler and Nazism, that none of this would have happened had they not set Germany on a vain road to world power, and that the Nazis indeed had pioneered the use of mass bombing of civilians before the Allies did: the museum mentions Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, Warsaw, Coventry and, indeed, London, all bombed long before 1943.

That’s generous of the German historians.

However, it hardly lessens the guilt of the Allied strategists. The exhibition quotes Air Chief Marshall Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris saying ‘There are a lot of people who say that bombing cannot win the war. My reply to that is that it has never been tried… and we shall see.’

Let’s be clear: the bombing of civilian targets has only one aim. In World War 2, the Allies called it ‘breaking the morale of the population’. Today we call such attempts by a single and simple word: terrorism. The destruction of Hamburg by fire was absolutely clearly an act of state terrorism, something we would do well to remember whenever we throw up our hands in horror at state terrorism practised by our enemies today.
Hamburg ablaze during Operation Gomorrah
St Nikolai has been left ruined, like the Memorial Church in Berlin or Coventry Cathedral in England. There is a quiet, stately mournfulness about these monuments to those moments when we get things wrong and build walls instead of bridges. 

Salutary in this city of so many bridges and which has suffered so much.

Are you listening, Trumpistas and Brexiters?

I suppose it would have been appropriate to have had a hamburger
among the Hamburgers. But I resisted the temptation

Saturday, 9 June 2018

When Britain turns crappy

Our street’s a bit crappy at the moment.

I don’t mean that’s it’s not particularly aesthetically pleasing, even though it’s not really much to write home about. But then, I’m not sure why I’d write home about it. After all, it is home, so there’d be little point in writing.
The sewage flowing past our doorstep
In any case, in this instance my judgement is meant much more literally. The street’s crappy because it has sewage running down it. Not a torrent or anything, not a flood, but a fairly constant trickle, filling the gutter and spreading a vile, malodorous miasma around.

You’ve got admit that ‘malodorous miasma’ is good, isn’t it? I hope it means what I want because I’m not changing it. I’m pretty certain you know what I mean, anyway.

We’ve spoken to the people in the house from which the sewage is flowing. They’re tenants. They tell me they’ve spoken to the landlord but nothing’s happened yet.

Luton Borough Council kindly provides an out-of-hours number to report such emergencies. After all, it’s a serious public health problem. Think of all the cholera epidemics in cities before proper sanitation was introduced.

Sadly, no one actually answers the number. Nor does it provide a voicemail function so we can leave a message.

I don’t blame the council. They’d do something if they could. But eight years of austerity have pared staffing levels down to the minimum, and then pared more.

Nor is Luton council the only service to have suffered this way. Most recently, such problems have been much discussed in the media in connection with the railways. Trains have been repeatedly cancelled, so there are fears that students won’t be able to get to school in time to take their end-of-school examinations.

The school buildings themselves are increasingly dilapidated, teacher numbers are down, and people are leaving the profession in increasing numbers, leading to a vicious cycle: they leave because understaffing is making the stress unbearable, and by leaving they increase the understaffing.

We have another personal example of this kind of thing just recently. My 93-year-old mother has been admitted to hospital. The care she is receiving is excellent – we were there when she was examined and advised by a consultant (a senior physician) who was admirable in his gentleness, reassuring good humour and kindness. But what struck us most about the place was the tiredness of most of the staff: the faces are drawn as they struggle to cope with a huge workload, never able to devote more than a few minutes to any one patients.

Many of the voices we heard were distinctly foreign. It’s well-known that the National Health Service depends heavily on foreign staff to keep operating. There’s nothing wrong about that. What’s wrong is that since the Brexit vote, there is a feeling that foreigners aren’t welcome in this country. Like the teachers leaving the profession, immigrants essential to the health service, to catering, to hotels, to agriculture and to many other sectors are leaving the country.

That hostility to foreigners is grounded in a sense that Britain is somehow superior to other nations. That pride seems misplaced in a country with failing railways, schools or hospitals. Or, indeed, on sewage running in the streets.

Curiously, our street here contrasts starkly with the street where we’ve recently taken a flat, in Valencia.

In my youth, Spain was a nation made painfully inward-looking, closed to the outside world and, frankly, poor – rather as Brexit is likely to make Britain – by its stultifying dictatorship under the last of the declared fascists, Francisco Franco.

But he died and Spain returned enthusiastically to democracy. It became one of the first European countries to allow same-sex marriage. It has been leading the way in moving towards gender equality – indeed the new government has, for the first time, a majority of women. And now El País, the leading Spanish-language newspaper in the world, is just about to appoint its first woman editor.

When we were last there, I was struck by the level of public service. I got chatting to the woman who cleans the streets around the flat we recently acquired in Valencia. She cleans them – ‘the same streets’, as she assured me, ‘every day’ – since they always need cleaning. That’s principally because a significant proportion of dog owners are highly irresponsible.

Now, I’d like it if dog owners always picked up after their dogs. But failing that, it’s wonderful to know that there is someone who’ll be along within the next twenty-four hours to clear up anyway. That seems particularly desirable when you live in a street made crappy by sewage flowing down it.

What’s more, Spain seems a lot less unfriendly towards immigrants than Britain does right now. That’s not to say that racism is unknown there – it isn’t – but at least xenophobia is less rampant than here. Which is just as well, since we plan on moving there just as soon as we can. Emigrating from a nation hostile to immigrants to become immigrants in a nation that is less unwelcoming to them.

Besides. The weather’s a lot better.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Return to normality

It gets tiring being away from home a lot, even if some of the time it’s for pleasure – such as visiting our sons – rather than for business.

Putting it another way, it’s good to get home. You sleep better, it seems to me, in your own bed. It’s good to have the things you need close to hand. It’s good to get up in the morning and find a coffee machine you know how to use, and a fridge containing the things you want for breakfast.

That kind of normality is even more attractive for the non-human members of our household. Disruption of their accustomed lifestyle is something they find deeply disturbing. The sooner it’s over, the happier they are.

The problem with the disruption is that it recently became more radical than it used to be. Our good friend Suzanne used to move into our place, so the animals – Luci and Toffee, the toy poodles, and Misty the masterful cat – could stay in their normal environment while we were away and still enjoy the presence of someone they’d come to know and love.

In fact, I’d noticed that the poodles – the girls, as we like to think of them – made more of a joyful fuss about Suzanne’s arrival at our place than they ever did about mine, when I came back from a trip.

However, sadly for them though happily for her, Suzanne recently became a grandmother (congratulations, Suzanne, and even more to the new parents). This means that she’s still happy to look after Misty and the girls while we’re away, but she needs to do it at her place rather than ours. That’s fine, but moving somewhere else is always a bit more of a jarring experience to dogs than staying in the place they’re used to, and Misty of course, who stays at home, misses out on Suzanne’s company, as she only comes round to feed him and spend a little while talking to him and stroking him.

So our return now represents a much bigger change for them all than it once did.

What amazes me, though, isn’t the extent of the change, it’s the speed with which they adapt. Within minutes, Toffee had picked up her old habit of demanding that I throw a soft toy across the room for her in the evenings. The trick is that she drops it beside me while I’m trying to watch the TV and whines until I pick it up and throw it again. If I fail to, she scratches my arm in what she no doubt thinks is a gentle gesture to remind me of my duty, but in reality is pretty painful – those claws aren’t as sharp as Misty’s, but they’re quite sharp enough.

I can tell you, the gesture works. One scratch and I’m throwing the toy again. Anything to avoid another reminder, even though I know that I’m rewarding her for doing it and she’ll only be even more inclined to do it again.

What tells me even more powerfully that things have got back to normal is when I see the pets relaxing. They have a capacity for total resting that never ceases to amaze me. So I was delighted to see that Misty was once more in his favourite place for a morning snooze – the middle of our bed.

Nobody relaxes so well as a cat at peace
Meanwhile, Toffee and Luci had also settled straight back into their relaxing place of choice: next to each other at one end of our sofa.

Resting's even better when you can do it with a friend
Those pictures of domestic calm, bliss even, said more strongly than anything else could, that all was back to normal.

What I haven’t yet told them, though, is that we’re off again at the end of the month. For under a week, but still it’ll be another cycle of disruption. Poor things.

It’ll be good, though, to see them getting right back to normal again just as soon as we return home.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Iftar, or enjoying a Muslim breakfast

Breakfast with friends has to be fun. And that’s true even when it’s in the evening. In fact, it’s better in the evening, if just for the novelty.

The occasion was an Iftar. That’s the ceremony of breaking the Ramadan fast – a rather special breakfast, in fact – at the end of daylight. Ramadan and its fasting is one of the five pillars of Sunni Islam.

Just for the record, another is the declaration of faith, so ‘Allahu Akbar’ isn’t some kind of terrorist slogan, as some might be led to believe by its handling in the Western media, but the key assertion of belief of Muslims everywhere (close to a quarter of the world’s population). It means God is greatest.

A further pillar that Britons ought to value particularly is the obligation to give alms. This is generally done quietly, without ostentation; there is a similar principle in Christianity, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Unfortunately, the left hand of Muslim charity keeps things so quiet that it took the right hand of a parliamentary investigation to reveal just how much good it does.

A Muslim friend – and not just any friend but a Badminton partner, so someone pretty special – and her husband invited us to join an Iftar in one of our local parks. There’s a tradition that non-Muslims should be invited to at least one such occasion during Ramadan, and many Luton mosques had extended similar invitations.
The friend who invited us
With two non-Muslim guests (Danielle to the right)
The Ramadan fast lasts from sunrise to sunset. Since it’s based on a lunar calendar with four-week months, over the years the celebration falls at different seasons. It’s particularly tough when it happens in the summer. Right now, daylight lasts nineteen hours in Britain. A Muslim friend – this time special not because of badminton but because he’s a colleague – tells me that in Norway, where he lives, the day is currently 22 hours long. In the two remaining hours, it must be hard to fit in two meals. Our British friends just about pull it off, by eating at 9:15 at night and before 3:30 in the morning.

In fact, there are some regions where summer days are so long, with barely any night at all, that a special dispensation has been made for them: they keep the same hours as Mecca. It strikes me as only fair that a similar arrangement ought to apply everywhere. After all, when Ramadan falls in the winter, my friend in Norway would have to fast for only two hours of daylight, which makes it rather an empty gesture, doesn’t it? I mean, even I can go two hours without eating.

It seems that there may be increasing pressure among younger Muslims to adopt generally the notion that the fast period should always last as long as it does in Mecca. That would make sense to me and I wish my friends luck with pushing this reform through.

As for the event itself, it was charming. We sat on a blanket under an awning and waited for daylight to end.

“The last minutes are the worst,” our friend told us.

At 9:14, with the fast due to end at 9:15, her husband added that the very last minute was worse than any other.

Then came the longed-for moment, when the sun dipped below the horizon. We ate dates, the traditional start of the breakfast. Then we turned our attention to the chicken, bhajis and spiced rice, which was astonishingly good – astonishing because there must have been 200 or so people there and it’s rare, in my experience, that food prepared for that many people is good at all, but this was delicious.

It had to be eaten quickly since prayer – another of the pillars – started only a few minutes later. But, in any case, after nineteen hours of fasting, I doubt many people there minded getting on with the food.

While the prayers were going on, we chatted with some of the other non-Muslims or, indeed, the Muslims who’d stayed behind to look after the young children. Danielle joined in with that task, knocking a balloon backwards and forwards with two of the kids. She’s the perfect grandmother to any child who needs one, while she waits for some more of her own to come along.
Danielle as stand-in grandmother
All in all, it was a warm-hearted, pleasant, and enjoyable experience. It was encouraging to see the far more widespread and far more attractive side of Islam than the one we tend to get from the press. Above all, it was just great to be there.