The 40th Anniversary of Attenborough’s Life On Earth

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.

 

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

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)

 

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Book Review: A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré


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 both been parents of a child each, and those children were 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.

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The Attack on Our Freedoms by Israel’s Supporters

The current onslaught on the Labour Party by Israel’s supporters  is simply breathtaking to watch for the scale of its hypocrisy and deceit. The Labour Party has adopted a code of conduct that accepted the IHRA definition but quite sensibly does not accept some of the examples provided by the IHRA that clearly do not fall into the category of anti-Jewish hatred, but are transparently designed to stifle criticism of Israel.

In particular, these are two of the clauses from the IHRA “examples of anti-Semitism” that the Labour Party code of conduct does not accept as constituting anti-Semitism and which Israel’s supporters are now demanding be accepted in full. You can see why:

  • “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

  • “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

How on earth could any political party adopt these “examples” as constituting anti-Semitism when the criticisms of Israel have nothing to do it?

No wonder that Hugh Tomlinson QC of Matrix Chambers in his official assessment of the IHRA definition declared that:

“The IHRA “non-legally binding working definition” of antisemitism is unclear and confusing and should be used with caution.”

It has long been apparent that many supporters of Israel have been trying to silence critics of Israel by claiming that their criticisms constituted anti-Semitism. If the IHRA definition was accepted in full they could then openly hound critics of Israel out of political parties such as the Labour Party by accusing them of anti-Semitism. One suspects that this may well be the true goal of many of the supporters of the IHRA definition.

I have not seen many Muslims write about this but one person who certainly has is Mohammed Amin, the Chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He writes in support of adopting the IHRA definition and says:

“The [IHRA] definition has been consistently attacked by self-described “Anti-Zionists” as attempting to shut down criticism of Israel, when it does no such thing.”

Amin’s blog includes a link to the IHRA definition where the “examples of anti-Semitism” I cited above are included so he could not have been unaware of this and yet he does not mention them in his article. How bizarre.

The ongoing onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party – often when news breaks of its lead over the Tories in new polls – is a remarkable story made all the more remarkable by the virtual silence of the usual freedom of speech crowd. Where are all those liberals who so vocally criticised Muslims for not understanding the value of freedom of speech when they were protesting against the cartoons of Muhammad or the Satanic Verses?

I pointed out in some of my earlier blogs  how important it was for Muslims to uphold these freedoms and accept that freedom means that things may well be said that are offensive to us.

Earlier today I was – once again – criticised on Twitter by the pro-Israeli website Harry’s Place – for defending Corbyn and the Labour Party in this matter. Ironically, the logo of Harry’s Place is the famous George Orwell quote “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Well, apart from when they want to criticise Israel’s murderous and racist behaviour towards the Palestinians, right?

The most central and attractive teaching of Islam is the concept of Tawhid – the Oneness of God. Many Muslim scholars past and present have pointed out that belief in Tawhid should result in a person being wholly unafraid of any power on earth and hence s/he should never be cowed by bullies or dictators of any type including well-organised lobby groups. The only real Power is God. And that really is the truth.

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Defending The Values of The Enlightenment

Donald Trump’s visit to the UK has led to mass demonstrations in London, Scotland and elsewhere with protestors making clear that they oppose his anti-immigrant and anti-environment policies along with his appallingly misogynistic views.

On Monday 16th July, Trump is scheduled to meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki. Many Europeans leaders are deeply concerned over Trump’s friendly overtures to the Russian leader. Klaus Scharioth, who served as Germany’s ambassador to the USA during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama sums up this concern in today’s New York Times:

“For me, the key thing is the Enlightenment. I think that keeps the E.U. together, the values of the Enlightenment — a free press, religious freedom, minority protection, free elections, democracy, a free judiciary independent of all the other branches of government, tolerance, respect for others. I’m afraid the United States might no longer be speaking out for these values. And that makes me very anxious.”

I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, and it is hard to overstate how much all of us in Europe owe to the values of the Enlightenment. It is why we instinctively recoil from Putin’s authoritarianism. It is also why we are rightly sceptical of religious movements, including Islamic ones, that strive to create religious states – we recognise that in practice those states will almost certainly lead to increased discrimination against minorities and greater intolerance.

It is deeply concerning that we are witnessing the rise of populist movements in Europe and policies advocating intolerance towards minorities. The thuggish supporters of the English Defence League and the bans we are now seeing being introduced in parts of Europe against women wearing the burqa or niqab are examples of this increased intolerance.

As Scharioth notes in the New York Times:

“Nobody thought in the early 1920s that Italy would become a dictatorship. Nobody thought that Germany, supposed a quite cultured nation, would get rid of democracy in a very short time.”

It is time to stand up for Enlightenment values and actively challenge those who seek to undermine them – whether they come in the shape of populists like Trump or whether they are advocates of utopian religious states.

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Who’s Afraid of President Erdogan?


Last month, Turkey held both Presidential and parliamentary elections. They were – according to Al-Jazeera – the 14th elections that the incumbent President Erdogan has taken part in and “he has won them all”. It is a truly remarkable record. In a region where many leaders rule based on the principles of a police state and refuse to submit themselves to a free vote amongst their people, Erdogan’s record becomes even more impressive.

And yet…if we read much of the Western coverage of the elections we were provided with a somewhat different picture. We know that much of the UK press is quite bigoted in its coverage of Muslim affairs. A few years ago, I wrote about how the Daily Telegraph had to publicly apologise to President Erdogan after it published an entirely baseless story alleging that  Erdogan had accepted $25 million from the Iranian government for his AK Party. Interestingly, Erdogan had received quite a bit of favourable coverage in the West soon after he and his AK Party came to power in 2002. This changed some years later – particularly after Erdogan publicly scolded the former Israeli premier, Shimon Peres, at Davos for his defence of Israel’s genocidal behaviour in Gaza. You can watch the video here.

But what about the Guardian? The Guardian is generally held by many Muslims to be rather more balanced in its coverage of the Muslim world. In the run up to the elections, the Guardian printed two articles by its foreign affairs columnist and assistant editor, Simon Tisdall. You can get a flavour of their contents by looking at how they were headlined: “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: a dictator in all but name seeks complete control” and “Bully-boy Erdoğan is a threat to Turkey – and the world“.

Tisdall warned that “If he gets his way in Sunday’s polls, Erdoğan, a dictator in all but name, is likely to foment further instability in Syria and throughout the Middle East region.” Readers might raise their eyebrows that a journalist from the UK – a country which played such a key role in the illegal war against Iraq in 2003 which caused so much blood to be spilt and fomented no end of “instability” in the region in the years since – is not showing a bit more humility and a sense of introspection, but let’s carry on.

Tisdall then goes on to alert his readers about the following bit of crucial regional intelligence: “Prince Salman, the Saudi crown prince, says Turkey is part of a “triangle of evil” that includes Iran and Islamic extremists.” Yes, Prince Salman, that well known democrat belonging to the enlightened hand and head-chopping Saudi Royal family that is so well known for winning how many elections exactly? One wonders why on earth Tisdall thinks his readers would regard the words of the Prince as counting for anything. He then ended his column, just in case any readers had not got the message, by writing “Turkey’s voters have a duty to the world, not just to themselves. Kick him out.”

Alas, the people of Turkey voted rather differently.

It is right to carefully scrutinise those who hold executive power. Far too few Muslim leaders and their policies are subject to proper criticism in their countries. In many Muslim countries – including Turkey sadly –  insulting the leader is deemed to be a criminal offence. That is appalling. There desperately needs to be more freedom allowed in Muslim countries. It will be interesting to see how Turkey fares in this regard in the coming months and years. Will Turkey opt for strengthening the institutions of democracy and civil society or will it follow the sorry example of the Middle Eastern regimes? Time will tell.

Yet, behind much of the Western criticism of Turkey, one can’t help but sense that perhaps rather different agendas are at work. Just after President Erdogan’s victory in the elections, the US member of the House of Representatives, Adam Schiff, issued a tweet deriding Erdogan for  winning by “decimating the opposition through arrests, violence and squashing freedom of the press.” The same Schiff had earlier in June issued a press statement defending Israel after it killed over 60 unarmed Palestinians in cold blood. He said: “These terrorist attacks are outrageous and unacceptable, and Israel appropriately defended itself with airstrikes against militant targets in Gaza. I support Israel’s absolute right to self-defense, and condemn these terrorist attacks by Hamas.” Yes, Schiff’s response to the murder of 60 Palestinians and the deaths of, erm, no Israelis, was to condemn Hamas. That’s right – defend the strong occupying power and condemn the occupied.

Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s senior adviser, immediately fired back with this message telling Schiff “You need to shut up.”

Can you imagine a senior advisor to any of the Gulf states having the courage to respond like that to a US politician? And perhaps therein lies part of the reason of why President Erdogan and his AK Party continue to be so popular, not just in Turkey, but in much of the Muslim world.

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Anwar Ibrahim in Turkey: “The Future of the Muslim World”

The Malaysian political leader Anwar Ibrahim – who was freed from prison last month following the dramatic election victory of his Pakatan Harapan alliance – was in Turkey this week where he was invited to give a talk on “The Future of the Muslim World”. The talk and the subsequent Q&A session has fortunately been uploaded on to YouTube and can be viewed by clicking on the link below.

Anwar began the talk by recounting how two of the first people who got in touch with him following his release, the former Vice-President of the USA, Al Gore, and the popular Qatar-based Islamic scholar, Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called him to say that the situation regarding democracy in the Muslim world had been a picture of gloom and despair and that the recent elections in Malaysia which saw the ousting of the corrupt Barisan Nasional government – which had been in power for almost 61 years – had given much needed hope to democrats everywhere.

The victory in Malaysia was only possible, Anwar said, because the Pakatan Harapan alliance had gained the overwhelming trust and support of all sections of Malaysian society including the Muslim Malays but also the Chinese, the Hindus and the animist population. The Malaysian people spoke out resoundingly in favour of democracy, freedom and the end to the abuse of power.

Regarding Mahathir Mohamad, who was responsible for the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Anwar back in 1998, and is now Prime Minister again due to his role in the Pakatan Harapan alliance, Anwar said that he had forgiven Mahathir due to his support for institutional reform and agreement to strengthen the institutions of governance.

Anwar publicly acknowledged and thanked the Turkish President, Racep Tayyip Erdogan, for standing by him and his family when he was imprisoned and for being prepared to courageously speak out on issues that mattered to the Muslim masses including the Zionist dispossession and persecution of the Palestinians and the Burmese junta’s genocide of the Rohingya minority. He added that Erdogan’s wife Amine had visited the camps of the displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh to learn about their situation first-hand.

The Qur’an describes the Prophet Muhammad as “uswatun hasanah” (Qur’an 33:21) – a good example – and Anwar urged Muslim governments to similarly lead by example instead of just issuing fine words and then failing to back them up with correct actions. The key issues facing many Muslim countries included good governance, establishing a free media and an independent judiciary. He said too many Muslim governments were mired in the deepest hypocrisy whereby they would talk about their respect for Islam but would happily imprison their citizens and leave them to rot in jail for years on end for unjust reasons.

The video is about 75 mins long and the introduction to Anwar begins at 09:21 into the video.

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