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Reflecting on life as a British Muslim in a secular pluralist society
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The 40th Anniversary of Attenborough’s Life On Earth

4 October, 2018 - 22:30

Today sees the publication of an updated 40th anniversary edition of David Attenborough’s classic book which accompanied his major BBC TV series, Life on Earth (though I think the publication of this anniversary edition has been brought forward a couple of months because I believe the original was published early in 1979. See below).

It is hard to overstate the landmark undertaking that the BBC’s series represented. It was filmed over a period of three years and the result was one of the world’s most informative, beautifully filmed and best loved nature series telling the spectacular story of the evolution of life on earth according to our latest knowledge.

The book version of Life on Earth was divided into thirteen chapters – one for each episode in the TV series. It became a rapid and huge best-seller. My copy was published in November 1979 and it shows that it was reprinted no less than eleven times in the very first year of publication due to its immense popularity.


At a time when the Director of the UK’s Natural History Museum, Michael Dixon, feels compelled to write in a national newspaper this week about his concerns about how Darwin’s powerful theory of evolution by natural selection is being attacked in Turkey, Israel and India by those who have allowed themselves to be blinkered rather than enlightened by religion, this week’s 40th anniversary publication should be seen as an opportunity to share Attenborough’s work with others around us.  Dixon writes:

Darwin’s theory of evolution not only underpins all biological science, it has an immense predictive power. From understanding the emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms, to the ways in which different species might respond to global warming – emerging as new pests or sustainable sources of food – human health and prosperity will depend on decisions informed by evolutionary evidence.

For those of you who like me cannot get enough of David Attenborough – you can now purchase the Audible version of the updated 40th anniversary edition of Life on Earth which is narrated by Sir David Attenborough himself.

Below is a short clip about the original series.

 

Book Review: The Fight (Ali vs Foreman) by Norman Mailer

3 October, 2018 - 21:27

For years I had been meaning to get round to reading Norman Mailer’s The Fight but somehow other books kept diverting me away. Finally, a couple of months ago I bought it to read on my Kindle on my commute to work in London. I had watched the October 1974 boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the legendary Rumble in the Jungle, many times on YouTube and had been impressed with Mailer’s commentary on the fight in the Academy Award winning 1997 documentary When We Were Kings, so it was with much excitement and anticipation that I began to read his book length take on the fight.

A word of warning at the outset: in this nineteen chapter book, the actual description of the fight does not begin until chapter thirteen. Don’t let that put you off though. Mailer was a giant of twentieth century American literature and his observations on the build up to the fight and his encounters with the characters surrounding Ali and Foreman, including Bundini Brown, Don King and not least, President Mobuto of Zaire, are fascinating and add much colour to the background of the fight.

George Foreman is such a jolly and kindly fellow today that it is easy to forget just how terrifying his reputation was back in 1974. He had knocked down Joe Frazier six times before stopping him in the 2nd round in 1973 and had destroyed Ken Norton also in just the 2nd round at the beginning of 1974. And both Frazier and Norton had beaten Ali on points. As Mailer notes: “Each time Foreman knocked a man out, frustration showed on his face. Foreman looked like he still wanted to kill them.”

Ali at this time was thirty-two years of age and widely regarded as being past his prime. He had cruelly and unjustly had his championship taken away from him in 1967 after refusing to be drafted into the army for the Vietnam war and had been banned from boxing for three and half years – years when he should have been in the pinnacle of his boxing career. Now, seven years later, while he was clearly eager to regain the Championship, boxing commentators openly questioned whether he was still as quick with his hands and able to dance around the ring as he had so dazzlingly been able to do in his younger years. How would an older and slower Ali be able to avoid being hit by Foreman’s murderous punches?

Mailer was in Ali’s dressing room just before the fight and he paints a gloomy picture indeed. All those around Ali were clearly afraid of the imminent encounter and worried about Ali’s safety. Ali’s personal trainer, Ferdie Pacheco, had quietly booked a helicopter in case they needed to fly Ali out for emergency hospital treatment. The only person who seemed unafraid was Ali himself who said. “What’s there to be afraid about? This ain’t nothing but just another day in the dramatic life of Muhammad Ali. Why should I be afraid of Foreman? My God controls the universe.”

Ali certainly saw a bigger picture. Mailer notes that Ali saw himself as a tool in God’s plan. He would create history by beating Foreman against all the odds. He would then use his resulting fame and influence for the benefit of poorer black people. To this end Ali did not merely rely on his prayers, but trained appropriately. Mailer even went running with Ali late one night until he ran out of breath and had to walk back to Ali’s camp alone in the dark. He tells us that his heart started beating much louder and faster when he heard what was unmistakably the roar of a lion. Later that morning when Mailer shared this story with other colleagues from the press who were there to cover the fight, they laughed and pointed out that Ali’s camp was very close to the zoo.

And on to the fight itself. Mailer was sitting in the second row just behind the photographers and live radio and TV commentators. Just before the fight begins, he describes the posture of the two mighty warriors.

“Ali pressed his elbows to his side, closed his eyes and offered a prayer. Foreman turned his back. In the thirty seconds before the fight began, he grasped the ropes in his corner and bent over from the waist so that his big and powerful buttocks were presented to Ali. He flexed in this position so long it took on a kind of derision as though to declare: “My farts to you.” He was still in such a pose when the bell rang.”

It is a joy to read Mailer’s account of the fight. His round by round commentary is intelligent and vivid. Here is a taster from the beginning of the very first round:

“[Ali] drove a lightning-strong right straight as a pole into the stunned centre of Foreman’s head, the unmistakable thwomp of a high-powered punch. A cry went up. Whatever else happened, Foreman had been hit. No opponent had cracked George this hard in years and no sparring partner had dared to. Foreman charged in rage. Ali compounded the insult. He grabbed the Champion around the neck and pushed his head down, wrestled it down crudely and decisively to show Foreman he was considerably rougher than anybody warned, and relations had commenced.”

In the second round, Ali introduced the world to his Rope-a-Dope technique whereby he would lay on the ropes and seemingly allowed Foreman to come in and hit him. At the time, the commentators thought this showed that an older Ali was simply not able to keep up with George Foreman and was inevitably going to be worn down. Mailer writes that Joe Frazier – who was commentating on the fight for an American network, kept asking “For what reason is he on the ropes? Get off the ropes!”

For those who haven’t seen or heard about what then happens in the fight I won’t reveal any more…apart from saying that Ali triumphs! We are fortunate that the open mouthed and flabbergasted reaction of Norman Mailer and (on the left) boxing journalist George Plimpton to Ali’s knockdown of the mighty George Foreman has been captured in a wonderful photograph.

Over twenty years later, Ali – now debilitated by Parkinson’s and barely able to whisper – would be asked what the biggest thrill of his career was. His response: “Zaire. Got my title back. In Africa.”

Mailer’s book rises admirably to the occasion and is a splendid reminder of an encounter that will long be remembered fondly and with much love by all who have been fortunate enough to watch The Fight. Ali somehow lifted us all up.

Now is the time

Here is the mountaintop

When one man climbs

The rest are lifted up

(When We Were Kings, Brian McKnight and Diana King)

 

Book Review: A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré

27 August, 2018 - 14:26

I recall first hearing about George Smiley back when I was in Primary school. Alec Guinness was portraying him at the time in the now classic BBC TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. George Smiley, the Cold War era English master spy. A thoroughly decent, professorial sort – he would surely have been an Oxford Don had he not been recruited into the “Circus” – who enjoys his visits to the British Museum and is pained by the frequent unfaithfulness of his wife. How could you not adore him?

Smiley was first introduced to the world in 1961 in Le Carré’s novel Call for the Dead. In 2009 Radio 4 produced dramatisations of all eight novels that had featured George Smiley up until then. These are available for purchase as part of a single collection via Audible and are highly recommended. And now, with Le Carré in his mid-80’s, we surely have in A Legacy of Spies what must be the final novel that will feature our hero.

A Legacy of Spies begins with George’s right hand man and protégé, Peter Guillam, now long retired and living in his ancestral home in Britanny, France. One morning, Guillam receives a letter from his former spymasters in London requesting his immediate return to assist with some legal inquiries.

It transpires that two of the protagonists who died in very tragic circumstances in the 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, had earlier sired a child each, and they are now intent on forcing the Intelligence establishment to admit that they – including Guillam – had deliberately used their parents as fodder to protect a British mole in the East German hierarchy. It is an ingenious plot device that allows Le Carré and us to revisit some of the dark scenes back in the fevered atmosphere of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

This allows for the pages of Legacy to be adorned with a cast of familiar characters including Control, Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux and many others. It does mean that the reader will require knowledge of the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to fully appreciate the nuances offered by this latest Le Carré offering. And if that means that more readers will now have to become students of George Smiley – well, that can only be a good thing.

As Legacy proceeds, Guillam keeps asking “Where’s Smiley? Is he still alive?” No one seems to provide a definitive answer. And when we finally do meet him, it is an encounter that fully does justice to him. We find him in a library, of course – where else? And what is he up to? Well, “…an old spy in his dotage seeks the truth of ages.” Smiley defends the Service as you would expect. They were not the same as their enemies.  “We were not pitiless, Peter. We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity.”

And what does the old spymaster now value at the end of a long life after duelling with some pretty merciless foes?

“I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I were ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”

At a time when the achievements of Western civilisation and the insights provided by science are cheapened and derided by a host of global actors including an ignoramus US President on the one hand and closed minded religious fanatics and Brexiteers on the other, identifying Europe and reason as important goals to fight for is eminently  worthy of our beloved spy master. This is a magnificently fitting tribute from Le Carré to his most memorable creation.