A Quiet Evening Derailed…

This is the text that I used as a basis for my talk at Cambridge Union, on the 23rd November, whilst opposing the motion that ‘This House Would Kill One to Save Many.’ I wanted to avoid going on about trolley problems and to try and bring out two things that I thought were often overlooked in these discussions: the question of the actual fact of killing, and the question of the uncertainty inherent to the many ethical situations — …

Back Home, Close to Midsummer

I am now back in the UK from Myanmar, and have been enjoying the beautiful midsummer weather. There’s a lot that I haven’t yet written about Myanmar — and may yet write — and a great deal I could say about everything that has happened over the past few months. But for the time being, just to signal that I am home, and that I am alive and well, I’m posting this poem that I wrote a couple of days ago. It …

The Pleasures of a Good Index

It is extraordinary that one of the most comprehensive ethnographies of Burman culture is still The Burman by Shway Yoe, a.k.a. Sir J. George Scott — a Scottish journalist, schoolmaster and colonial administrator who lived in Burma in the nineteenth century. The Burman was first published in 1882, but remains an amazing repository of information. You can get the book everywhere here in Yangon, in pirated knock-off reprints of the Norton edition. I was given a copy by a friend soon after I arrived, and I’ve …

Soft Work

For the last few days, I’ve been in Chiang Mai, where I’ve been having a short break whilst also sorting out a new visa for Myanmar. And whilst it has been in some ways a break, at the same time, I’ve been getting a lot of reading, thinking and writing done. It has felt both idle and productive. And this time away has given me a chance to think about something that has been on my mind for a while …

Learning Burmese: A Poem

Since being here in Myanmar, and somewhat uncharacteristically, I have started to occasionally write poetry. This is something I haven’t done for a very long time; and when I mentioned (confessed!) this over on Facebook, a few friends said they’d be interested to see what I’m up to. So, with some hesitation, here’s something that I’ve been working on. I hope you enjoy it. * Learning Burmese At first, there is no language.       There are only things and solitude. Out of loneliness …

In Yangon

It is just over a week ago that I landed in Yangon, where I will be living for the next five months. It is a warm Sunday morning, and I am in a crowded restaurant that is noisy with families who have come out to eat Sunday breakfast together and to chat. And after a week, I have shaken off the jet-lag, and am beginning to adjust to the rhythm of life here. I am in Yangon to teach a …

New Year Thoughts on Grief and Friendship

On New Year’s Eve, we stood outside — four of us gathered in the back garden — and we watched the fireworks blossoming in the sky over the rooftops. It was a cold, clear night. We had been drinking wine and eating Chinese food. I wasn’t feeling particularly celebratory, after what has been a punishing year; but it felt important, nevertheless, to mark the occasion, to say farewell properly to a year in which everything in life changed for me. …

The Obligatory Christmas Blog Post

A year ago today, on Christmas day, I was with my partner Elee, having breakfast in the cold and faintly damp restaurant of the Red Age Themed Hotel, in the town of Anren in Sichuan. We were there to visit the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, an extraordinary private museum complex dedicated to the various sufferings of recent Chinese history. The ideal Christmas date, in other words. We were joined at our breakfast table by the Old Revolutionary and his daughter. The …

The Cheerfulness that Keeps Breaking Through

  O gather up the brokenness And bring it to me now The fragrance of those promises You never dared to vow   The splinters that you carry The cross you left behind Come healing of the body Come healing of the mind   We were in kitchen, you and I. It was February, not long after we had received the worst of news. Outside it was still winter. I was cooking, and you were at the sink washing up. We were …

The Inferno of the Living, or Business as Usual

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize …