Saturday, May 17, 2008

Another week

Last Sunday Rhoda Torres came to tea, and it was the first time we'd seen her since before we moved to Camberwell 21 years ago. She seemed just the same, other than putting on a little weight since she gave up smoking. Somehow we omitted to take a photograph.

Monday, Dawn Smith, representative of the British Virgin Islands, came to lunch, and we discussed the Islands' successful regulation of the financial services industry, ecotourism, and Richard Branson's plans for development of the two islands he owns.

After Questions, the weekly meeting of my Select Committee, hearing evidence from Professor Davis Fidler of Indiana University and Dr Kellet Lee of the Centre on Global Change and Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Professor Fidler says that the global health picture (he doesn't like the use of the word architecture) is one of open source anarchy. He would like to see international law developing sets of health norms, on the lines of the International Health Regulations, but acknowledges that states are not readily going to cede that amount of sovereignty.

In the evening, to Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe, with Lindsay's brother Philip and his 13-year old son Alex, staying with us from Hong Kong. Puck was inaudible and the fairies were in punk fashion. Why doesn't the Globe stick to doing real Shakespeare?

Tuesday morning, to Mr Speaker's, as one of the judges for the Mr Speaker Abbott Award, given by the Press Gallery of the Commons to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the admission of journalists to the proceedings of the House of Commons in 1803. It was a varied list of nominees, all of whom had made significant contributions towards the promotion of Parliamentary democracy at some risk to themselves.

Then Lindsay and I had lunch with Lee Foster, development officer at William and Mary, Lindsay's old college.

I fielded a question on the Democratic Republic of Congo, asking if the Government would press for the appointment of a monitor for the performance by all parties of the humanitarian and human rights obligations they had undertaken in the January 23 Goma Agreement. Lord Malloch-Brown gave an assurance that the matter would be raised at the meeting of the Contact Group next week.

Thursday, to Oxford with Lyulph, for the Maurice Lubbock Memorial Lecture at the Engineering School, which was delivered by Lord Browne, former head of BP. He was making an argument for the wider contribution of engineers to the solution of political, social and economic problems, taking the case of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline as an illusttrative case study. Although there were formidable technological problems with the development of a large pipeline through terrain that is subject to extremes of temperature and earthquakes, there were also major environmental and political hurdles that had to be overcome.

Friday, again to Oxford with Lyulph, for the 50th anniversary of the Maurice Lubbock Scholars at Ballil. Malcolm Forrest, the second Lubbock Scholar, said it was the only Trust at the University where the trustees maintained personal links with the Scholars, as we do every year at the Annual Dinner. The Scholars had commissioned a magnificent silver bowl to mark the 50tn anniversary, which Howard Davies, the first Scholar, presented to me to give to the College. The Scholars also gave me a wonderful picture of the Palace of Westminster, looked at from the top of the Eye. Lyulph and I travelled to and from Oxford on the bus for the princely sum of £15 for the two of us, OK if you're not in a hurry, We caught the 23.30 on the return journey, reaching Flodden Road by 02.45.

This week in addition to Philip and Alex, who departed yesterday evening, we had Barbra Stapleton staying for a couple of days on her way from a NATO conference back to Kabul. She was in great form, but we didn't have nearly as much time to discuss the problems of Afghanistan as I would have liked.

Saturday, with Lindsay to the Sri Lanka High Commission, where we were the principal lay guests for the Vesak celebration. The High Commissioner invited me to say why I was a Buddhist, and I spoke for five minutes, relating the story of my conversations with Prins Gunasekera when together with Bala Tampoe we visited the south in 1971. The Four Noble Truths seemed at one level extremely simple, and at another, profound statements about the moral universe that were analogous to the laws of physics in the material universe. The Buddha's analysis of the 'five aggregates' of existence - form, perception, intellection, perception and consciousness - showed that each was changing over time; and if they constituted the sum total of the human being, there was no permanent entity in which the soul or self could reside. This convinced me of the doctrine of Anatta or soullessness, which is apparently so difficult for those brought up in Christian or Islamic societies to grasp.

There was then a sermon by Ajahn Vajiro from Amaravati, in which he dealt with the concept of Dukkha, generally translated as suffering or unsatisfactoriness, the common feeling that something is wrong with one's life even if for most people in the audience, there was enough to eat, they had adequate shelter, and clothing. He touched on the Five Precepts, saying that no doubt everyone present was observing them at that moment. Afterwards everyone circulated and we talked to many of the other guests, invluding Ajahn Vajiro, whom I had met on other occasions but this was the first time I had been able to have some conversation with him.

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