A few days holiday allow space for recording a few books read recently.

Doctors at War, ethnographer Professor Mark de Rond’s powerful record of his time embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastian in Afghanistan, provokes much thought and emotion. It is clear that exposure to the sheer unnecessary and seemingly random suffering of ordinary people as well as combatants raises questions of theodicy. This disturbs Mark’s own faith questions, and leads him ultimately to an expression of atheism. Reading the book, however, provoked in me a different question: not how we account for suffering and evil, but, rather, how we account for joy in a world of such suffering? This is not glib; I would love to see a further discussion of it.

At the other end of the scale is Simon Jenkins’ entertaining romp
through Christian faith and its oddities, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse. The book comprises columns Simon published in the United Reformed Church (not ‘Reform’ as it says in the book itself) magazine Reform. Making theology simple and accessible is not as easy as Simon makes it look. He shines an unusual light from an unusual angle to open up our thinking and not close it down. As I know from years of writing scripts for Radio 2, this isn’t always an obvious or simple task.

Sitting here in Berlin waiting for a thunder storm to break, it is worth
recommending James Hawes breathless race through the entire history of Germany. The Shortest History of Germany is excellent and enlightening, but it is clear he neither likes nor trusts Prussians. A better overview of Europe’s most important country you will not find – and in these days of Brexit and Trump, with a German election coming up later this year, it is worth the quick read.

Finally for now, Tom Fletcher’s book about the impac of digital change on international diplomacy, The Naked Diplomat, is excellent. Again, an easy read, it says a lot about communication, leadership and handling change. It also contains the most memorable quote about diplomacy – inevitably from Winston Churchill: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”


It might seem an odd choice of reading material on a trip to Sudan, but I have just finished Simon Jenkins' A Short History of England. Excellent stuff – a romp through the kings and queens and politicians of England since before England existed. The book cover also calls it 'The complete story of our nation in a single volume'. Er… I think there might be a slight discrepancy between 'a short history' and 'complete story'! Anyway, it is a great quick read and fills a gap.

The reading also offers a little relief from the insistent questions surrounding and arising from almost everything else we are doing and everywhere else we are going here in Khartoum. Yesterday we were taken to visit the Abu Rof Clinic in a poor area of Omdurman. The Administrator showed us round and the ordered goodness of the place was evident at every turn. This clinic, run by the church, reaches people not being reached by anyone else. They do basic health education, lab tests, nutrition advice and resourcing, counselling and other medical and pastoral care. The scope is remarkable.

The main ailments among children here are TB, skin diseases and digestive problems, mainly caused by malnutrition, poor hygiene and poor understanding of health basics. Adults are increasingly showing up with HIV as well as similar illnesses to the children. Women are taught about birth control (not using contraceptives). The most surprising discovery of the visit so far was the moringa tree – the leaves provide amazing amounts of vitamins and minerals and can be dried, crushed and sprinkled on other foods. Brilliant! So, the clinic not only grows its own, but it also enables people to have their own to grow so they have an endless supply of nutritional elements at no cost.

However, the visit was also poignant. Two Swiss nurses have been told to leave the country and the second leaves tonight. After 24 years he in this clinic, this seems an almost absurd move that can only harm the people whom the government (presumably) wants to help in terms of health care. This sort of expulsion is not uncommon and other stories can be told later.

I might be wrong, but it seems that (particularly) the vote to create the new state of Southern Sudan has led the government of Sudan to make southerners accept the consequences of their vote: you wanted your own country; now go and live in it. So southerners are being asked to go south. This is, in one sense, entirely understandable (if not entirely defensible) in terms of making people accept responsibility for the choices they have made. Foreigners with connections to the churches are also being told to leave. The overall drive seems to be to create a single country with a single culture and a single religion – and this process is, of course, enhanced by the drive to have a single language, Arabic. Hence the problem with the marginalization of the Nuba (Africans) and the continuing attrition in the Nuba Mountains.

First impressions should never lead to final conclusions. However, the picture is beginning to build and I am understanding more each day of why things are developing the way they are. I will need to think it through once we have returned and then see where the dust settles.

Today we have a meeting with the British Ambassador before heading into the suuk for yet another new experience. Given that I loathe any form of shopping anywhere, this might have to be seen as a 'cultural experience'.


There we are, trying not to be too complaining about everything, and the Guardian gets me going again.

Having moaned – with absolute legitimacy – about the state of language learning in England, I open today’s Guardian and find Simon Jenkins pressing another button: the history curriculum’s obsession with the Nazis.

Under the header ‘Britain’s Nazi obsession betrays our insecurity – it’s time we moved on’, Jenkins asks:

What is the matter with us? We seem unable to get the Nazis out of our system.

He goes on to put his finger on a point we in the Meissen Commission have been trying to address for several years:

Small wonder Hitler is now the ruling obsession of the national curriculum. I remember my son asking me, after a punishing term of the Weimar republic, if there was a second world war when was there a first? The GCSE history website scores 417,000 mentions of Hitler against just 157,000 for Henry VIII and the Tudors.

My own son managed to study history right through school and university, but it was only at uni that he managed to find an alternative to Hitler and Stalin.

Is it a mark of Britain’s insecurity that we can’t let Hitler go? Is it simply that 1945 was the last time we ‘won’ anything? Why when we play Germany at football do tabloids still do puns on Nazi imagery or football crowds sing such inanities as “Two world wars and one world cup – na na na na na.”?

The tragedy is that post-1945 Germany is an extraordinary story of division, political brinkmanship, economic re-engineering, social and psycho-social reconstruction, conflict, re-culturisation in Europe, and so on. If I didn’t like Berlin and Berliners so much, I would suggest that every school child in Britain should be taken to Berlin for a few days. Walk 100 metres down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor and you have to embrace language, history, geography, theology, economics and politics. You can’t understand German politics or culture without knowing history and how it has been shaped by theology.

The Meissen Commission is trying to address the English obsession with one exciting period of German history in two ways: (a) pressing for reform of the history curriculum in schools, and (b) embarking on what we are calling the Meissen Schools Initiative, aimed at establishing live links between schools in England and Germany.

Simon Jenkins concludes:

I must not fall foul of Godwin’s law, but the demands now being made of Germany “to show leadership” come with ghostly overtones of reparation for past guilt. Nothing is more likely to incur German resistance than to imply that rescuing Europe is somehow an obligation on a present generation of Germans for the deeds of a past one. Misreading Germany was a lethal failing of Europe’s 20th-century leaders. It is surely time to consign the Nazis not to oblivion but at least to history.

Like Jenkins, I suspect our obsession with Hitler and the Nazis is indeed a mark of our insecurity (or envy?). It is time we grew up.

I posted yesterday’s moan about swine flu hysteria and its associated statistical inconsistency. The I heard Simon Jenkins had written about it in the Guardian a day or two ago. Next thing I know he is on the Today programme on Radio 4 winding up a doctor. Then I have a look at the Guardian, and here it is again from a blogging doctor.

Make your own mind up.

I feel sorry for the pigs  – who are having their name taken in vain.