This year (2020)
Previous years: 2019;
Heart of the Valley
A World Away
The heroine of this book is a bird, a "dunnock",
something I had never heard of before, but apparently the more common name
is the "hedge sparrow". The story takes place somewhere in the English
countryside, near a couple of farms. And we follow the drama of this little
hedge sparrow through a year of its life.
There are so many of these little birds peeping and
tweeting away, particularly in the summer. All sorts of different species,
yet they all look pretty much the same to me. Not like the birds of
Australia which are very distinctive. But how do they survive this horrible
northern European winter? We hang seed dispensers from the the branches of
trees in the winter, resulting in much activity in the garden during these
cold, wet, muddy months. And somehow the tiny birds survive. Then in the
spring and the summer the air is filled with their calls. But we have
remarked on the fact that in recent years there seem to be fewer bees and
butterflies compared with a few years ago. Is it all that glyphoast
which the farmers are spraying everywhere?
The book starts off in the
winter. Many of the birds die of cold and hunger. But then our little
sparrow finds a mate, and they take refuge and some warmth in a barn. When
the warmth of spring returns they make a nest in a hedge directly next to
a driveway, which is soon destroyed by a car squeezing by another car and
scraping the hedge. Then they try somewhere else, later in the summer.
The story then shifts to
Africa. We follow the trials of a cuckoo, flying for days across the desert,
then across the Mediterranean Sea, and France, to finally arrive in the
woods near our sparrow's farm. And so the drama begins. The horrible cuckoo
baby kills the sparrow babies, one after the other. But with the advantage
of having hatched a couple of days earlier, and with much endurance and
agility, one of the sparrow babies survives.
Indeed, I hate the sound of those cuckoos. Germans make
quite a fetish out of their rules and regulations for hunting, so I suppose
they must be a protected species. But what is the good of such parasitic
Well, I suppose all of these things are relative. After
all, the sparrows themselves live by eating up all the insects and worms
that they can find. Such is the struggle for life. The thing that I don't
understand is why sparrow evolution has not advanced to the point of being
able to distinguish a cuckoo baby from a sparrow baby, which would enable
the grown-up sparrows to rid their nest of such little monsters.
The story is concerned with adaptation. For one
reason or another, children are sometimes left without parents. They might
then be put into a strange family and brought up as children of the new
family. Or, usually less happily, they are put into some sort of institution
for dealing with the situation.
In the book, things start off with a mother who has lost
herself in a drug-induced haze and various, more or less violent male
partners. She has two children: Kerry, an eight year old daughter who is
more or less looking after the two year old son. She is keeping herself and
her baby brother alive using desperate measures. But then they are taken
into care. The baby son is adopted by a wealthy, open, friendly family near
Primrose Hill, and he thrives, eventually becoming a barrister in the law
courts of London. He has changed his name to Noah. Kerry was put into a home
with other orphans and has now become a cleaning lady, privately cleaning
other peoples houses for some small, minimum wage, living in a London slum.
Kerry remembers her brother well, but the adoption people
do not tell her how to get into contact with him. Only if he were to contact
them would they release such information.
We follow Noah and his problems in marriage. He seems to
be an almost perfect husband to his wife, and father to their daughter. But
his complaining wife says that he is not sufficiently open. He does not talk
to her enough. And so she wants a divorce.
Is she being unreasonable? Aren't women often naturally
more talkative than men? But more than that, we must think about the
situation of a person living as an adopted child in a family. The family
might be as friendly and loving as can be, but in the background is the
unspoken thought that the ties are not so strong. If things go wrong might
the adopted child not be just as easily returned to wherever it came from? I
can well imagine that adopted children become careful, guarded, cautious
with their families. And this could become a basic way of dealing with life.
Unfortunately the book then became a gushingly emotional
story about the sister developing cancer, finding the long lost brother
using a detective agency, deceiving him at first about her motives (ensuring
that Noah becomes the guardian of her 10 year old son), and then dying and
being eulogized by everybody, including the brother. I would have preferred
to find out more about what Noah's wife was thinking, and what Kerry really
thought of her brother without all of this unrelated drama.
This is not a novel, instead it is a brief history
of the Crusades. The subtitle of the book is, "The Case for the Crusades",
thus telling us that they were justified in some way. Indeed, thinking about
the books I have read, from Gibbons vast history through to a book
describing the Crusades as written down by contemporary Arab observers;
throughout all of these writings we have the impression of primitive,
violent hoards, invading peaceful, civilized lands, leaving chaos
everywhere. Was Pope Urban II nothing but a wild rabble-rouser at Clermont,
addressing a mob of ignorant peasants on the 27th of November, 1095?
Or is all of this just a distortion of things as they
really were? Did Gibbon become carried away with his anti-clerical posture?
And was it only natural that the Arab inhabitants of the lands being invaded
thought of themselves as being civilized and the invaders as brutal
aggressors? What were the causes of the Crusades?
Going back further in time to the year 600, we find that
most of the Mediterranean world was Christian. And judging, for example, by
the Confessions of Saint Augustine, people were free to think in
various ways about philosophy and religion, continuing the open tradition of
ancient Rome. People went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, perhaps out of
curiosity, or religious fervor, or to atone for their sins. Then, around 620
Mohammad appeared on the scene, preaching religion but also becoming
a warrior, uniting the tribes of Arabia, first through attacks on
caravans and later in pitched battles. The Arab warriors who came after
Mohammad quickly conquered many further lands, including Jerusalem.
It is said that the system which developed was tolerant,
world-open. Arab learning preserved the "dark ages" from pure ignorance. But
is this really true?
Islam is a utopian system. Yet utopias are always harsh,
intolerant. Free thinking cannot be tolerated. What other explanation is
there for the fact that of the hundreds of Nobel Prizes which have been
awarded in the sciences, only three have been given to people with Muslim
backgrounds, despite the fact that almost two billion of the people in the
world adhere to that religion?
Of course the hoards of Arab warriors emerging in the
seventh century, riding their camels out of Arabia, were no better than
soldiers everywhere. But as Rodney Stark shows, much of what is attributed
to the high Islamic culture of the middle ages was due to people who refused
to change to the new religion. And while they were tolerated, they were
treated very unfairly with repressive taxes and all sorts of restrictions.
And the Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem were often attacked, robbed,
The brutal, bloody sack of Jerusalem by the crusaders is
often compared with the peaceful conquest of Saladin. But this comparison
fails to remember the rules of warfare in those days. If a city under siege
surrendered, it would be spared. Otherwise everything would be destroyed;
the men killed, the women and children sold into slavery. Both the crusaders
and Saladin followed these rules. Various cities were subjected to Saladin's
wrath, as bloody and savage as anything the Crusaders offered.
Then there is the sack of Constantinople in the fourth
crusade. Yet this becomes understandable when we read of the continuous
double-crossing of the crusaders and their colony by the Byzantines, often
allying themselves with the Turks against the crusaders.
And finally we have the fact that these days, many
Muslims consider the Crusades to be an historical evil, a crime which for a
millennium has been left to fester and eat away at the soul of Islam. The
Zionists of Israel and the invaders of the United States are said to be
crusaders. The bringers of evil. But in fact this idea of the crusaders as
being of great significance was an invention of 19th century Islamic
nationalism. The commentators back then, a thousand years ago, considered
the Crusades to be a minor affair. If anything, they were a welcome force to
counteract the continuing invasions of the Turks.