Scheherezade came to Sindbad

(Rotate phone to view.)

Scheherazade came to Sindbad, as a refugee,
To face an unforgiving prince and a sleepless Grand Vizier.
Through wind-swept dunes of golden sand, her painted feet, his steady hand,
Lead from Baghdad to Samarkand, where freedom’s prayers disappear.
Her lips, tongue, majesty and youth whisper in the Sultan’s ear;
Softly, but in fear.

Adorned with Persian jewels and gold, and skin barely fifteen years old,
She smiths the words and spins the yarns that define her young career;
From all beneath her golden lace—the trembling lips of her veiled face—
Spawns a world of wonder and grace the nation’s longing to hear,
Of seven wondrous voyages, sailing out from bristling pier,
Carried by her fear.

Arabian waters glisten, arresting Shahryar to listen,
As audience, with her hero, sails from Basra to Tangier—
To every place waxed for her groom, whilst confined to his lavish room.
Her final day seems ever to loom, each week and month and year;
Draped in silk and fur he lays, offering to her mouth his ear,
Heedless of her fear.

Through bracing waves of cobalt sea, on rugged course to set her free,
Sindbad’s theft, murder and greed is honed to serve the sultan’s cheer;
Monstrous beasts and riches unseen in kingdom, palace, or harem,
Lure him from his murderous scheme, ending those he holds most dear,
Strangled under the furrowed brows from which muscled eunuchs leer –
Luridly, and in fear.

Enthroned behind the Tak Kasra, lounging in greed, the Shahanshah,
His corpulence and avarice suited just to mock and jeer;
Yet his alone, that mouth so sweet bids aching loins to moist retreat,
Fair oasis in desert heat, at his call she will appear;
Apostle of freedom, yes, but: at his disposal, I’m clear;
Yet comely, in fear.

Reflected in the sultan’s eyes the youth and splendour of her naked thighs,
While he ponders on bearded jinn imprisoned by lamp and word;
The captor I beg she despise, in constant fear of his reprise,
Exhausted now, it’s no surprise—nor to you, or so I’ve heard—
His garden of Persian virgins; by her alone now he’s stirred,
Fear, to him, absurd.

Hero, brigand, from her mind’s eye, each of them one other than I,
In alleys, shadows, desert and seas with dirk, sabre and spear;
On horseback, armed with shield and mace, to press the sultan’s fall from grace,
Herself remaining barely chaste, to her breast my thoughts so near;
Preserved each night, by me at least, in—I implore, I’m quite sincere—
Deference to her fear.

With a luscious, languid, lustrous form and Sal al Din’s panache,
Little memory of her sister, or her fretful father’s waxed moustache,
Goes she:
Through Arabian peninsula, Maghreb, and far from here,
A thousand nights to share her creed, pharmakon for the sultan’s greed,
His wealth the crop of slavery’s seed, purloined from subject and peer:
The land before the wells turned black in the call to prayer we hear —
Spoke always in fear.

Mouthed in a voice that falls like silk, warm with the wine, sick of his milk,
Come the savage brutes and beasts our protagonist plied to rear
From plaits and pearls and painted lips, and gold, threading over her hips,
In Hanging Gardens where she sips from fountains on every tier;
Her patience, virtue, silver tongue, the unbridled masses cheer,
Sanguine, but, in fear.

Shipwrecked again, truth aptly wanes,
Ne’er a lie, yet: just myth remains.

In her satin ribbons and bows, and unearthly lack of other clothes,
With sailor saved from slavery and the porter from his sneer,
She laces bells on painted feet and, golden skin kissed by the heat,
She ventures desert dunes to greet the equivocal Grand Vizier;
A possible epiphany; in prayer for a sign;
Between the Tigris and Euphrates a garden at last benign;
In their hope and, surely, fear,
But more likely just in mine.

— RM

Under the fiscal austerity of the Tory government, a highly controversial benefits cap has been established — at an income level that would secure a beneficiary his or her place amongst the top 1% wealthiest people in the world.

And most of the remaining 99% of the global population have to pay for their treatment of serious illness and long-term care out of that lesser income, or die painfully at home.

When voters wonder at the self-interest of the top 1% of UK earners, they might do so by reflecting on their own financial choices — and how they might be judged by the 99% of the global population that will regard them with similar moral despair.

While the UK population carries on its pillow fight in the business class cabin of humanity, those of us genuinely wanting a system that serves the greater good must engage the various constituencies that we share our highly privileged society with. That means selling a progressive agenda to the growing population that now enjoys unprecedented property wealth.

These are not people that fit the widely maligned conservative caricature, but rather comprise a generation that has worked hard to adapt to an unfair system — and who may fear their hard-won gains will be diminished by a political shift.

Preserving and advancing a progressive agenda can be achieved only with information, negotiation, and compromise. Nothing will be won by demonising the increasingly established middle class; by trading in soundbites, headlines, and incomplete or decontextualised factoids; or by a slavish commitment to the increasingly anachronistic wings of political ideology. The traditional left must engage the middle classes in a more cerebral and nuanced debate regarding who gets what, and how it’s funded — and to unite all classes on internationalism over nationalism.

The virtues of a stiff upper lip took a bashing in the lead up to the London Marathon, with the House of Windsor Millennials extolling the greater virtues of opening up about your feelings.

Personally, I’m all for droning on about me to the couple of poor sods whom I’ve learned will let me get away with it. I’m equally happy to listen: Despite too much casual judging of people that I don’t really know, when eyeball-to-eyeball with another human being I’m all ears.

Bob Hoskins was right all those years ago: It’s good to talk.

What I’m less certain about is consigning a growing share of our emotional life to mental health professionals. I won’t be depositing the most awkward parts of my mental life in the sickness account. Naturally, some of those that choose to do so — before or after the Heads Together campaign — may claim that their experiences are more disabling than mine. But that is a stubbornly complex claim.

Our biological life loaned the word ‘health’ to our mental life long before now. But as recently as the second half of the last century, leading left intellectuals dedicated their energy to deconstructing the role of mental illness as an establishment weapon, rather than to expanding its scope. Mental illness was, the likes of Foucault opined, a device for marginalising people, ideas, and behaviours that the state deemed undesirable — marginalising, very often, by way of incarceration.

Modern democracies marginalise people, ideas, and behaviours, on an arguably unprecedented scale — only in more subtle ways than incarceration. Subtle ways that might, indeed, benefit from increasingly subtle notions of mental illness. Powerful systems, particularly systems of power, adapt well to public demands, often granting them as a smokescreen for widening their own remit.

Care workers that spend their working lives assisting the most difficult autistic clients, or violent schizophrenics, may cite good cause to reject the theory that mental illness is fundamentally a myth. But it remains compelling that explanations for more common seemingly pathological emotions and behaviours — from stress, anxiety and depression, to alcoholism and suicide — might be less energetically sought from the individual, and more from the society we live in.

Mental health science relies in large part on the assumption of a certain ‘biological ~ psychological’ equivalence. It’s assumed, widely without challenge, that both might be understood in similar terms, and described in similar language; that both might be either healthy, or unhealthy, and — when the latter — treated in the same or similar institutions. It’s an assumption that is in the DNA of the political rhetoric in lobbying efforts for changes in public policy: in particular, for the expansion of public service provisions for mental health issues.

On the face of it, this is a progressive agenda. But the expansion of public services must not be mistaken as a discrete benefit that can be won without a cost. Beyond simply new fiscal implications, every benefit won brings an additional part of our life into the realm of public policy.

The state response to health issues has long been cross-departmental. Policy relative to smoking-related diseases is not limited to funding treatment: it extends to product-specific excise duty to regulate consumer choice; regulation of the advertising industry; regulation of behaviour in public and private spaces; information campaigns, and broader deployment of soft power to influence public life.

Many of us may agree that this is an example that has served the greater good. But it is important not to sleepwalk through the lesson that in the wake of our new entitlements, we are subject to new regulations. New provisions are woven into public policy, extending government reach, insidiously; irreversibly; in perpetuity.

In the wider context of many government departments — including the Department of Health — being granted the right to request UK citizens’ web browsing history, the state has already leveraged technological and legislative tools to gain unprecedented access to our psychological life. In our pursuit of mental health entitlement spending, we seem more likely to secure a Faustian pact than a more progressive social policy.

Our liberation from the morally and emotionally constipated sensibilities of our Victorian forefathers is a triumph for society that warrants a public holiday. Perniciously pathologising our thought processes, however, threatens rather than crystallises that liberation.

The current generation’s willingness, or otherwise, to endure with a stiff upper lip might have significant implications on the reach of the state into our children’s psychological world. Chaos theory’s butterfly wings flap particularly vigorously across generations of lawmakers.


This is no letter that Endymion wrote,
But is to one I loved, in secret —
Occasionally together, now always apart.
And thence the weight of a withered heart:
Impassioned to lobby devoid ballot or vote —
Entreating in the mouth, drying in the throat.
There’s been little to liken myself with this part
Of the world known more for aspiration than art;
Till both had no you to look upon and gloat.

— RM

Better Together?

Under the leadership of one of the most credible contemporary political voices, and with just historical context, it’s no surprise to see the SNP stirring for another crack of the independence whip. More so, one might say, being faced as they are with a predominantly English vote to leave the EU.

It speaks volumes about the enduring Celtic enmity—with the Anglo-Saxon invader—that Scotland’s mourning of ‘ever closer union’ with Germanic tribes on the continental mainland gives reason for its ever greater disunion with the Germanic tribes closest to home.

In a fervour to distance ourselves from English nationalists, it would be easy for me and many of my English comrades to brother-up with Scottish nationalists in an act of Anglo-bashing empathy. Particularly, that is, for those of us that take no pride in the Edwards’ perversely celebrated obsession with using every manner of innovation in politics, economics and violence to bring independent Celtic kingdoms to the English monarchic heel. Or for those of us that are embarrassed by the muted tones in which Anglo-centric histories of Imperial Britain whisper of its Scottish economic, intellectual and cultural backbone.

But, in an increasingly fragile global system, with new, powerful state actors—already in conflict over territory, resources, and influence—I find it hard to parse the grammar of Scottish secessionist ambitions.

There’s also the inevitably nationalist premise of the project. As a general historical observation: whatever is said in mainstream media, rumour, and pub talk about the nihilism of Islamic terrorism, there’s been no greater force for bigotry, intolerance, and militaristic arrogance than nationalism. There has been no greater scourge of human solidarity than the cesspit of ideas that have festered under its banner. Even the most infamous religious wars in medieval Europe were largely using pontifical doctrine as a proxy for nationalism.

Those aggravating for ever-greater fragmentation of the most socio-culturally liberal bloc in the contemporary world—be it the UK dissolving its union with Europe, or Scotland dissolving its union with the UK—may ultimately celebrate their self-determination in increasingly inaudible cheers. The progressive decline of our collective cultural, political and economic relevance—however ardently dismissed by the nationalists as hyperbolic guff—is inevitable. That includes the diminishment of the Enlightenment values of logic and equity — the genesis of many of humanity’s most sane aspirations, and a particularly poignant reference in a discussion about Scotland.

However shrill it may sound on the lips of an Englishman, surely we’re Better Together.

Who poisoned Kim Jong Nam?

Do we even need to ask?

North Korea is the world’s leading pariah state, discredited and despised for the savagery and ineptitude of its unhinged leaders, their social and economic incompetence, their cartoon-like bellicose outbursts, and their insatiable appetite for impoverishing their charge with their ‘military first’ fiscal profligacy. It’s the world’s most odious dynastic dictatorship, hovering over its deranged worshipful masses — a population either beaten into stupefied adulation of their masters by thought control and fear; the victims of some mass experiment in stage hypnotism; or, otherwise, themselves no better than their leaders.

At least, that’s the prevailing narrative now embedded in western consciousness.

And that narrative frames public policy at home, editorial policy in mainstream media of both colours, and the mindset of their readers. I’ve read reader comments in the Financial Times, without qualifying any distinction between government and people, that North Korea is, simply, ‘an affront to humanity’ that should not be tolerated. And unlike the victims of other flavours of xenophobia and exceptionalism, the North Koreans are almost entirely without a champion. In the West, government, press, and people find themselves in a rare condition of alignment: the only solution, it appears, is: The Final Solution.

And it disgusts me.

Let’s not forget how often we hear about ‘the hermit state’ — the government tour guides prohibiting journalists’ visibility of ordinary people’s ordinary lives. Yet we mysteriously hear about Kim’s administration feeding dogs to their people, and about Kim feeding his administration to the dogs. It apparently doesn’t warrant an explanation as to how journalists access intimate secrets about events surrounding the North Korean ruling cabal, yet can’t get access to mundane information about the mundane lives of ordinary people.

In a recent article in the Financial Times, celebrity North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee is presented to readers as a channel providing unique insight into the inner world of her forebears. Readers come away with all of their prior assumptions unblemished. Not having visited North Korea for 20 years, and now replete with the full English of Gangnam-style cosmetic surgery procedures, I had to ask myself: Is Miss Lee a refugee from the most terrifying dungeon of humanity, or is she little different from any other émigré who’s made an arduous journey from a dead-end existence to a better life? And to help benchmark the distance of that socio-economic journey, how many Syrian refugees are presently queuing at Harley Street cosmetic surgery consultation rooms? What would Brexit voters make of it if they were?

The entire choreography of the anti-North Korean theatre, and all of its actors, combine to weave a narrative that differs from North Korean-style propaganda only in its sophistication. It frustrates me sufficiently that I’m prepared to risk being rude to Hyeonseo Lee to emphasise the point. During my lifetime, the dynastic dictatorship of the United Arab Emirates has sanctioned courts to sentence adulterous women to death by stoning, but the West is queuing to go do business with Dubai, or to go on holiday there — including HM Government, UK. Why? Because standards of living are better in UAE than North Korea? Might that not at least partly be attributable to more than fifty years of economic and diplomatic punishment of North Korea by the world’s superpower, which has proven as effective as it was designed to be?

Maybe Kim Jong Nam was murdered by the agents of Jong Un’s self-preservation programme. It seems perfectly possible. Maybe he was murdered by creditors after decades of propping up a gambling addiction in his adopted home of Macau, casino island of the East. That seems possible, too. Or, perhaps, it might transpire that he wasn’t poisoned by a Vietnamese woman wielding a rag — much like his uncle turned out not to have been fed to the dogs, after all. It’s hard to know, for those of us who are fans of Twelve Angry Men.

Most of the world east of the Mediterranean is as mystified by the West’s double standards on prejudice as the West is of popular North Korean support for the eccentric Kims. Why is their ruling family a laughing stock by dint of its three-generation dynasty alone, while a fifteen- to twenty-generation dynastic heritage alone is a badge of pride for ours? The Enlightenment might have won the West the modern race for living standards, but—doubtless to the chagrin of its pioneers—not for morality, nor for truth.

Joe Biden’s teeth

Joe Biden’s teeth used to fascinate me. I recall watching Joe sweep into the theatre at Centre College, Danville, for the Vice Presidential debate leading up to the 2012 election, and actually laughing out loud at his coruscating smile. A real-life emoticon.


When his easy smile breaks into that pearly grin, it’s like sticking magnesium ribbon into a Bunsen burner.

Arriving home too pissed to sleep, ‘Joe Biden’s teeth’ was a staple Google search to kill some time whilst waiting for my bedroom to knock off the Ferris wheel act. I quickly discovered the domain name had been registered. I can’t honestly say it’s worth a visit, but it’s worth knowing it’s there:

Now, only five years on, I’m looking at my own teeth languishing in their pyrrhic victory against my three favourite drugs: red wine, espresso, and English tea. Everyone told me to expect, with age, that my fascination with late nights and alcohol would wither and wane. I ultimately realised they were confusing the effects of age with the effects of having children and, in doing so, failed to mention stained teeth. But, far worse, nobody mentioned that by 2017 it would be normal to look like Joe.

A Google search for ‘why do English have…’ always used to autocomplete with ‘yellow teeth’ — a suggestion that barely ranks in the top five now that, increasingly, they don’t. Instagram’s cultural reach has normalised American values in Britain. While I’ve been busy sneering at the obsession with cosmetic surgery abroad, a bustling population of homegrown vain selfie-philes have been queuing for clinical help to emulate Kendall Jenner’s pout. The Donald’s phosphorescent teeth Trump old Joe’s, and yet it’s only the tangerine skin that gets a mention.

Well, I’ve a dental appointment when I get back to the UK, and—you guessed it—I’m going to gingerly open dialogue on how to wrest my teeth back from the clutches of my vices. It seems I’m too proud to embrace the symptoms, although I’m not proud to admit the remedy. I promise to be sufficiently subtle that you’ll barely notice the difference. No Bidenator iPhone flash smile. No magnesium ribbon flare. Just back where I was in 2012. That’s all. I’ve explored the possibility of claiming that it’s ‘for me’, but I just can’t pull that guff off. It’ll be for vanity. That means it’s for you lot. So I thought you ought to know. 

The Muslim ban

There’s little more heartening than public assembly in protest for the common good. Given the broader US-led foreign policy agenda in the Middle East, however, I find it odd that it should be a moratorium on US immigration from a peculiarly conceived selection of countries that unifies public ire.

Essentially, drone strikes indiscriminately killing villagers in Yemen—to help the most sinister dictatorship in the region maintain control of petroleum shipping lanes—is fine. Clinton and Kerry, under Obama, who established and executed that policy, collectively preserve their status as sane advocates for the liberal order. But leaving people stuck at Terminal 5 unable to start their new jobs at Harvard crosses the line of common decency.

It goes without saying that I’d rather see a US that adopts neither of those policy planks. But the idea that the border rules are a more draconian measure than extrajudicial murder by remote control serves above all to underline the disconnect between populations east and west of the Mediterranean.

At the very least, let me assert that Donald Trump’s Muslim ban will be little more than a footnote in the Arab world’s treatise against a century of injustices inflicted upon them by successive western superpowers.

The Obama farewell speech

Fascinating contrast between the Obama farewell speech and the Trump press conference this week. The crude, crass, ineloquent retorts versus the pensive, reflective, thought-provoking oratory, rich with penetrating social analysis, evocative cultural insight, commitment to the future with gallant optimism and, above all, the pride of fatherhood. Metropolitan Americans were already looking upon Obama with nostalgic pride.

But while they were joined by middle class audiences across the northern hemisphere in shedding a tear during his marital tributes, the Obama Administration was busy executing the largest build-up of military materiel on the Polish-Russian border in a generation — one of the most dangerous acts of diplomatic brinkmanship of his presidency.

George W. Bush has a de facto monopoly on bellicosity in the public consciousness. But Obama’s foreign policy record differs only very marginally. The start of his presidency saw a significant escalation of military activity in Afghanistan, went on to oversee the invasion of Libya, and drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have been a defining foreign policy tool throughout his tenure. That is: extrajudicial assassinations in civilian-populated areas away from war zones, by remote control, to prosecute a geo-political agenda.

Doesn’t that sound a bit like something Isis would come up with?

The diplomatic record isn’t much different to Bush’s, either: endlessly blocking an otherwise unanimous international community of nations’ efforts to end (a) the Cuba embargo and (b) illegal Israeli settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories. The closest the Obama Administration has got to formally aligning with international norms is to wait until the final trimester of his term, and abstain from GA/Security Council votes on both. Abstention. Hardly the tool of the maverick pioneer for social justice that Californian celebrities sat teary-eyed in thrall of on Tuesday. The much-welcome Cuban thaw (begun only in Obama’s final term, once no more electoral victories in Florida needed to be won) amounts to the equal treatment of Cuba by the world’s superpower to roughly the same degree that Jim Crow granted equal status to African Americans.

Many will focus on the differences between the Trump and Obama addresses. Personally, I’m more preoccupied by the similarities: the obsession, of both, with style over substance. Trump’s no-nonsense attitude to policy, whilst framing no policy whatsoever. Obama’s deep connect with the American people, having spent eight years flawlessly upholding a remote establishment that remains—at home and abroad—morally ambiguous at its best, and outright Machiavellian at its worst.

The populists of today might revere the warrior kings of the past, covered in glory for their power and ambition. Those revelling in Obama’s Shakespearian valedictory address might revere the parliamentarians of the past — the establishment elites that are still mistaken as proxies for the proletariat. Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford were clashes of the titans, absent any champion for the rights of the many. It’s folly that the 2016 US election was mistaken by any as something different.