Sunday, June 20, 2010


IRAN hubble_bubble_ghahve

Hubble Bubble in Ghahve Khaneh/ Ghahve Khane Azari-Vali Asr street before Raah Ahan square-Tehran. 4 June 2010. Excellent recent photo essay by Kamyar Adl entitled ‘Day Out in Tairish Tehran’.

The Generalist recently received a message from Nasrin Alavi, whose brilliant book on Iranian bloggers WE ARE IRAN we discussed at length on a Previous Post on 9 July 2006 

Read her recent article entitled ‘Iran in Darkness and Light’ published on the excellent Open Democracy site earlier this month.

There’s now a great directory of Iranian Blogs – from Iranians both inside and outside the country. Some are current, others serve as fixed traces of the turmoil of recent years. New posts in column on right.


According to Wikipedia:

Blogging in Iran operates under special circumstances because the government restricts certain views. Blogs in general tend to be unregulated compared to other forms of expression in Iranian society. This characteristic can account for the huge popularity of blogs especially among Iranian youths. As of October 2005, there are estimated to be about 700,000 Iranian blogs (out of an estimated total of 100 million worldwide, of which about 40,000-110,000 are active, mostly written in Persian, the Iranian language).

There are also many weblogs written by Iranians in English and other languages. Most of them, though, belong to expatriates who live in North America, Europe, Japan, etc. Iran is the third-largest country of bloggers in the world after the United States and China.[1][2] With more than 700,000 Persian blogs, mostly based in Iran, the Persian language is ranked as the second-most-popular language in the entire blogosphere.[3][4]




The map of the Iranian blogosphere was produced on 6th April 2008 by John Kelly and Bruce Etling for their paper, "Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere."





These three novels I picked up second-hand. I was attracted to them by the fact that they were all set in cities that I have spent time in, have fond memories of, know and love. Thus reading all these books constantly triggered off my own thoughts and memories about my own adventures in these cities.


Barcelona is the setting for Gitana [Orion Books 2001] which I EUROPE3 279visited some three years ago, Much of the action occurs in the maze of streets surrounding the Ramblas. This is the third in a series of books  by author Dominic Martell featuring Pascual Rose, ‘a repentant ex-terrorist trying to make sense of his life after defecting and selling out his former comrades in the European terrorist underground of the 1980's.’  The book captures well the underground world of the gipsy barrios, the Catalan culture, and clusters of strange displaced outsiders.  Always on the move, constantly under threat, Pascual tries to stay ahead of the ghosts of his past and the forces of the law. Its a good read but I did get lost in some of the plot complexities near the end.


‘Black Girl in Paris’ [The Women’s Press. 2000]  by Shay Youngblood is delightful, whether read as pure fiction or disguised autobiography. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in the US Deep South, Eden makes it Paris where she hopes to make it as a writer, following in the footsteps of Afro-American writers like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and James Baldwin, who is still in the city and whom she tries to track down. She struggles to survive – working as an au-pair, artist’s model, poet’s assistant – and explores her sexual self., The story of her adventures are rendered in sensuous poetic prose. A moving memoir drenched in the sounds and textures of the City of Light.


Night Train to Lisbon [Atlantic Books. 2009]  is, simply put, a really great novel. This was the book I took with me on my journey to Ireland, and its story formed a second-level of narrative to my travels, a well as evoking strong memories of my several visits to Lisbon in the late 1990s. Sometimes you feel a book is speaking to you directly. This was certainly my experience.

The story concerns Gregorious, a teacher of ancient languages, whose life, which has been steady and regular for 3o years, is suddenly unhinged by a strange meeting with a Portugese woman on the bridge in Bern (the author’s birthplace). Captivated by the sound of her language, he then stumbles on a strange book by enigmatic Portugese author Amadeu de Prado, and sets out on a journey to investigate his story and in the process, goes through some major personal transformations.

The book works on many deep levels and requires close and measured reading. I found I had to slow right down and sometimes only read three pages at a time. Then suddenly, the unfolding plot would sweep me on through the next 50. Pascal Mercier, a professor of philosophy in Berlin, is not only a master storyteller but also a man of profound insight into the human condition.

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Images from Glide-Lines blog. Text reads: ‘A peaceful revolution of militars with flowers on they're guns had return freedom of speech to the people’

The book is exceptionally interesting as it takes us into Portugese history, when the dictator Salazar and his brutal secret police ruled the roost and the Resistance were planning a revolution which, in real-life, was successful: The Carnation Revolution, led by a left-leaning military coup on 25th April 1974, returned the country back to a democracy.

Profound and powerful, this  book which took a strong grip on my imagination and made me question a lot of my own feelings and thoughts. The book is a journey of the soul on which I became a fellow passenger. I am 50 pages from the end and I am reluctant to finish it

[Not everyone agrees with my perspective. Check out a range of reactions on The Complete Review]

Pascal Mercier’s real name is Pieter Bieri

Tuesday, June 15, 2010



This month marks the


Anniversary   of                   The Generalist.

I started the very first post on this blog, entitled ‘Memory Exercise’ with the following quote – a kind of mission statement which I still hang on to.

'Many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them - if you want to. Just as someday. if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful, reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry'
- J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher In The Rye

Thanks to you all.

Thursday, June 10, 2010



Ralph Whistler May  [26 Nov 1885- 20 Oct 1959]. This photo was taken by Grosvenor Portraits in 1948 when Ralph was 62.

This series of posts is an account of a remarkable journey I have just made, in company with my son Alex, following in the footsteps of my father to the little island of Valentia off the extreme south-west tip of Ireland.

My father died when I was nine and ever since he has been a haunting absence in my life. My personal memories of him were limited  but thanks to a family tree researched by another member of the family, I had some factual details of his life and times. Further information came from my half-brother and half-sister (respectively 40 and 30 years older than me) who had been living in Australia since the early 1950s.

One of the things about my dad that interested me most was the fact that he had worked for the Western Union Cable Company from 1915 to 1945. My mother had told me that Ralph regularly travelled to Ireland but it was only a few years ago that I discovered where he went – Valentia Island. From that time on, I decided at some point that I would make a pilgrimage down there.

At my 60th birthday party I was stunned when my son Alex announced that, unbeknownst to me, he had been secretly conspiring with my friends to raise the money to send me on this trip.

What follows is a partial account of what proved to be a moving and profound journey.



View of Valentia Island from Geokaun Mountain. Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan.


How we got there. 

Day  1: Train from Lewes to London Bridge at 6:50. Taxi to Euston (arriving with 5 mins to spare!).

9:10 train to Holyhead. Ferry to Dublin (approx 3hrs 15 mins).


First view of Ireland from the deck of the Ulysses, which claims to be the largest car ferry in the world. Calm seas and brilliant skies.

Taxi and tram to Heuston station. Train from Dublin to Cork, DSC_0031 arriving about 9:45. A long day. 

Right: View from the window of the train to Cork.

Costwise, the train/ferry trip is excellent value: £48 return. You cannot break the journey going but you can on the way back. We found out the details from the excellent website The Man on Seat 61


Left: No-handed station clock at Mallow.

Day 2: Train from Cork to Killarney via Mallow.




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DSC_0054This must be one of the most scenic journeys in Europe with stunning views of the beautiful mountains that form what is called the Ring of Kerry.


Taxi from Cahirsiveen to Reenard Point where we got on board the tiny ferry that travels backwards and forwards to the island all day. Journey time: 5 mins.DSC_0078


Where we stayed: Atlantic Villa, the former cable master’s house, run by Jackie and Brian. Fantastic B&B, beautifully fitted out, substantial breakfasts. Highly recommended. We were in the attic room with great views over the bay.DSC_0087









Illustrations from top:

1. Map showing the various cables laid from the island

2. First-day cover celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the laying of the first Transatlantic Cable

3. Surviving members of the Western Union workers on the island, standing behind the commemorative monument created by local sculptor Alan Ryan Hall.

4. Photo of part of the cable history exhibit in the Valentia Island Heritage Centre.

5. The surviving cable station building and telegraphers’ accommodation on the island.

6. Another historic plaque erected by in 2000 by the Institute if Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

6. An excellent history of the island by Nellie O’Connor published by the Dublin-based Portobello Press in 1992, which includes an excellent history of Valentia’s cable history.

The history and heritage of the cable business on Valencia Island is still very much alive and important to the current inhabitants as I discovered. Early attempts to link Valentia and Heart’s Content in Newfoundland – the shortest route between Europe and America  - using  the American Niagara  and the British Agammemon naval vessels were only partially successful. The  first working cable was subsequently laid using Brunel’s giant ship the Great Eastern. Western Union established themselves on the island and were active there until 1966. The importance of Valentia Island in the history of communication is assured. Had a long conversation with 90-year-old Dick Smith and worked out that his dad might have known my dad but was  unable to find any direct memories or pictures of him. However and happily have arranged to lodge a picture of my dad in the Heritage Centre – so his presence will now form a small part of the history of the cable story on the island. I think he would have liked that.

For more information see the History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications website.


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Various views of and from Knightstown, the main settlement on Valentia, an island which has a total population of 650 people and 200 cars and measures approximately 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) long by almost 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) wide.It is one of Europe’s westernmost inhabited locations. More information on the Valentia Island website. The island has two excellent pubs  - The Royal Hotel and Bostons – where we sampled the local Guinness and Black Label Bushmills, played pool  and communed with the locals. On our first night, there was a lock-in. Standing outside the bar, under the full-moon, we turned around and there was a large hare sitting in the middle of the road.

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The sculptor and painter Alan Ryan Hall in the front room of his beautiful house in Kingstown, where we talked about Davy Graham and Rodin and shared coffee with a dash of the hard stuff to keep the conversation flowing.Copy of DSC_0147

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We hired a car for the weekend and drove round the island and vicinities. Above is the sign pointing to the Tetrapod trackway (which is 85m years old), a small black lizard in the grass and a delightful vernacular house, one of a very few on the island.

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Copy of DSC_0163 The slate quarry was another major industry on Valentia. Still worked to a smaller extent. The grotto above is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whose statue sits high above.

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This house was made famous by a Guiness ad which described it as the remotest pub in Britain. Painted on the side is ‘O’Sheas. Next pint, New York. In fact its a private house and the whole thing was mocked up for the advert.


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We walked over the peat bogs where there were beautiful wild flowers, a wee green beetle and great swathes of bog cotton, one strand of which I picked and preserved in my note book. The cliffs were magnificent, the wild sea various shades of blue and turquoise. The wind filled our lungs with fresh air from the Atlantic.


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The following day we attempted to drive around the mainland but got lost in the mist and retreated to The Bridge in Portmagee to eat and drink and listen to some great Irish music.


Reluctantly we left Valentia Island, which will always remain close to our hearts and caught a coach and two trains which carried us to Dublin in about five-and-a-half hours. Bit of a contrast. Stayed at the Gate Hotel off O’Connell. Cheap and cheerful (39 euros a night a twin room) with a Rock Bar below.

Copy of DUBLIN1611 Visited the Writer’s Museum and the Hugh Lane Gallery. The latter now houses Francis Bacon’s studio, lovingly reassembled to form a unique display. The gallery has a wonderful collection of Corot paintings and a small Degas sculpture which was a beautiful thing. Here is the one drawing I made on the trip.DUBLIN2612

DUBLIN1611Most of our time was spent in the Temple Bar district where we enjoyed the sights and sounds, drank the Guinness, ate oysters, listened to music and enjoyed conversation and the craic. Below our two favourites – O’Neills and McDaid’s.Copy of DSC_0258 Copy of DSC_0265 DSC_0294

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So hear we are looking refreshed and revived on our last night. This very special trip would have not been possible without the following: Tanya, Pete & Harry, Manek & Hazel, Richard, Mike and Caroline, Ed, Martin, Mick & Sarah, Russell, Fran and Lindsey, Andy & Phillida, Ian&Debbie, David M, Flo & Bridget, Nick Davies, Gordon& Kathryn, Jo, Katie and many other friends at the Lewes Arms & The Con Club. Special love and thanks to my son Al for having the idea, making it happen and being my Passpartou.