- What is the role of faith in your life?
I'm not a fervent pray-er; I go for months without attending church. When I describe myself as a believer, it's more a statement of an intellectual position than a description of an emotional relationship. But from time to time I do simply enjoy opening myself up to a sense of the presence of the numinous, and I think pretty much all religious activity is based on this fairly common human experience.
- Has your work in Africa changed your perspective in any way? (And do you have any future plans to come to Juba?)
Two for the price of one, eh? My work in Africa amounts to three visits to Juba since last November, and I do not anticipate that I will be called on to return soon, for reasons of recent internal reorganisation. I found it pretty gruelling, for reasons with which you will be very familiar, though of course rewarding as well, because one is very conscious of one's work at making a difference.
I had always wanted to do some work on Africa, because of all parts of the world it is the most neglected, and apart from Southern Sudan my current job has also brought me into contact with the Polisario Front and Somaliland. Actually being on the ground does bring home to you the enormity of the demands being made by the outside world on Africa and Africans; but I like to think that I was already prepared for that by my pre-trip research!
- Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Still in Belgium, anyway; still in international politics, one way or the other. I hope (and expect) that my current job will keep me going for a while yet.
- Seriously: what's so great about Doctor Who? I just don't get it.
I am not one of the fans who could ever seriously argue that Doctor Who is so great. For me, it has the attraction of a connection between the present day and my later childhood, a common point of interest with my ten-year-old son, and a huge and detailed expanding mythos which I can continually explore (at present, apart from the current Eleventh Doctor stories on TV, I've just started reading a First Doctor book, just finished watching a Third Doctor TV story, and just finished a run of Sixth Doctor audio plays; and when I get home I'll hoke out the 1970 Doctor Who annual from the DVD it's stacked with). It works for me; I don't demand that it should work for everyone.
Also I believe that one of the guest actors in a Sixth Doctor story has a daughter who lives in Sudan and writes novels.
- What would your Desert Island Discs be?
You were fortunate to ask this question before birdsflying, who also thought of it but I made her try again.
I have not been listening to a lot of music in the last ten years or so. It was a much bigger thing for me in my twenties than in my thirties or forties. Having said which, if I am stuck on the island, I believe the rules allow me not just a single LP per entry but a collection of recordings marketed together for each entry. So:
- Sibelius complete orchestral works - or if you press me, the Second Symphony and the Kullervo symphony; I just love the barren landscapes of his music.
- Beethoven: complete symphonies if I am allowed, otherwise I'll settle for the Seventh. (A minority choice; I suspect that the Ninth, Fifth and Sixth are more popular, but I'll stand by it.)
- Dire Straits: if I can't have the complete collection, I'll take Alchemy which I used to listen to on long car journeys across Bosnia.
- Les Miserables: as long as there is an English-language version without the insufferable Michael Ball.
- Carmina Burana - tacky but fun.
- the original audio Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (both series if I am allowed).
- The Daleks' Master Plan with narration by Peter Purves.
- if I can count the complete Sibelius as one entry, then I'll have the Bruch violin concerto to round it off.
- How on earth do you find the time to read as much as you do?
Really, yiskah, the rules say five questions not six - or seven! But I read fast; I have a long commute; I read more if I am travelling or am ill; and anyway I've been cutting down lately!
- Is there a food you can't stand that most other people love?
I'm really not a fan of Marmite, under any circumstances; of tunkey, under most circumstances; or of spinach, unless it is cooked in such a way as to disguise its taste! Apart from that I will try most things.
- You read a lot! Have you ever thrown a book across the room or come close?
I do note a few books that I cannot finish each year.
What would be your desert island discs?You travel a lot, so what's the one thing you always pack?
Trusty Gillette Mach 3 razor with spare blades. One can usually find toothbrush, toothpaste and soap on the road, but decent razors are much more difficult sometimes.
- If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be?
I've just had a fairly unpleasant journey to Alsace in the northern European summer heat, and would much rather be tucked up in my own bed next to my nice warm wife.
- Of the many places you travel to, is there one that you'd prefer to never return to?
I guess the most unpleasant place I've been was Bratunac, north of Srebrenica, in 1997 just two years after the massacre, where many of the killings took place and where the population seemed to display a horrified awareness of what had been done combined with utter unwillingness to talk to outsiders. Even there, I think morbid curiosity would bring me back again.
I didn't have much fun on my one and only visit to Madrid, but that wouldn't stop me going back; my first trip to Tirana was pretty disastrous from the point of view of getting good food, but it turns out from later on-the-ground research that I was just unlucky. There was a time in my life when I was going to Kosovo more often than I liked, but my trip there next month will be my first in two and a half years.
- What made you pick Clare College?
A combination of factors - I was charmed by the architecture; I liked its apparent commitment to both science and music (and to a certain extent religion), which were big things for me when I was 17; and I was told that it had good links with Northern Ireland (though of course these turned out to be more personal as manifested primarily in Lord Ashby rather than institutional). I certainly don't regret it, though quite probably I would have been equally well served by any college less posh than Magdalene or Peterhouse.
- What's your opinion on the MMR / autism scare?
Almost unprintable. Wakefield's research was faked, has caused children to die due to lack of immunisation, and shamelessly exploited on the guilt feelings of parents dealing with an awful discovery about their children and trying to rationalise it by blaming something, even (perhaps especially) if that something is their own actions. Wakefield shouldn't just be struck off; he should be in jail.
- How did you meet your wife (I never tire of hearing these sorts of stories!)
That story has been , I suspect sharing some architectural similarities to your own experience!
- Fizzy drinks or fruit juice?
Fizzy water, but if it's sweet I prefer it flat. Apart from iced tea, but that's made from leaves not fruit.
- Tell us about an occasion when you could see what needed to be done but were powerless to do it.
Jeepers, there are too many of those, and I suppose that's what motivates my political activities. The one most on my mind this week has been the Gaza blockade, a policy which seems certain to achieve the opposite of its ostensible aims. My former employers at ICG have been rightly vocal about this. Other such international politics issues are the supine acceptance of Morocco's occupation of the Western Sahara and theft of resources; the failure of the rest of the world to try to persuade Serbia that it has lost Kosovo, the hugely irrational and destructive attitude of Greece on the Macedonian name issue; and the groupthink policy of supporting a "government" in Somalia which barely controls its own presidential palace while ignoring those who actually run substanial chunks of the former country's territory and do so reasonably well. There are others but those are the ones I am most familiar with.
On a more personal and professional level, now that I am effectively a consultant, I give people advice all the time, and have to live with the ego shock when they don't take it. I think my advice is worth quite a lot, so I am usually more alarmed on their behalf than on my own, but there is a bit of both in there.
The rule is that you can ask for ve questions in the comments. I am far from the internet this weekend but I hope to reply reasonably fast.