Monday, July 31, 2006

good to be back

As you'll have heard, Israel's air-strikes yesterday killed more than 60 civilians, including 34 children. Faced with the inevitable outrage, Israel announced last night that it was calling a 48 hour halt to bombing so that the remaining civilians could vacate South Lebanon.

No confirmation or details yet, but The Guardian are carrying a news ticker update right now which reads:

LATEST: Israeli jets bomb south Lebanon despite suspending air attacks for 48 hours.

I really hope that's not true. If it is, then are we are talking a war crime?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

hugely frustrating

A hugely disappointing outcome in the Rome talks yesterday, made all the more bitter because we'd been led to believe in recent days - first via Kim Howells and then via 'sources close to Blair' - that Britain may indeed be moving towards a more even-handed understanding of the Israeli-Lebanon crisis. That we should have come out of the talks having frustrated attempts at brokering a ceasefire - via a bit of semantic wrangling over the word 'immediate' - is another source of shame to add to the list of foreign-policy woes. To see Margaret Beckett, who used to be a politician of real substance and integrity, reduced to this is but a minor irritation when stacked up against the knowledge that, two weeks after the fighting began, we are standing back and watching rather than doing something about such large-scale and calamitious conflict. Minds are inevitably cast back to Sarajevo or Rwanda.

In the meantime, are Israel getting anywhere? A correspondent in today's paper - Gordon Anderson from Glasgow - runs through a list of popular movements which have survived attempts to 'destroy them' with military action - the list includes "the FLN, the Vietminh, the Vietcong, the Mujahaddin, the IRA" and points out that the West is getting no further with Hizbullah, Hamas, or the Taliban. "Resistance movements invariably arise from a sense of injustice and are neutralised only when the injustice is resolved", he points out.

In The New Statesman today Charles Glass - who was kidnapped by Hizbollah in 1987, incidentally - quotes former CIA agent Ray Close, who in a recent open email wrote that:

"One of the definitions of madness is the repetition countless times of the same action, always expecting a different result. For more than half a century, the Israelis have been applying the tactic of massively disproportionate retaliation to every provocative act of resistance attempted by the Palestinians, expecting every time that this would bring peace and security to all the people of the Holy Land. Every single time they have done this, it has backfired. Every single time."

I'm not sure that I know enought about the history of the region to endorse that without hesitation (three key things we must not forget: Israel has a right to exist, it has a right to secure its borders, and a right to defend itself), but there's little doubt that its response has been disproportionate and there's no doubt at all that its actions won't do anything to promote stability in the region. That the US neocons are once more imagining a domino effect simply beggars belief. (Sidney Blumenthal thinks they're thinking along the following lines: "Israel's attacks will demolish Hizbullah; the Lebanese will blame Hizbullah and destroy its influence; and the backlash will extend to Hamas, which will collapse. From the administration's point of view, this is a proxy war with Iran (and Syria) that will inexplicably help turn around Iraq"). Today, incidentally, Hizbollah have fired over 150 missiles at Israel - the most since the war started.

What now, then? The Guardian leader is pretty coherant. We all know that the US foreign policy of the last five years has systematically burnt almost every diplomatic bridge with the Middle East, so negotiation - the only way to bring about a peace settlement, assuming that we even convince our government and America's that that is necessary - is absurdly difficult. The US won't talk to Iran (and in fairness, would be asked impossible questions about nuclear proliferation if it did) but not all diplomatic routes to Damascus are entirely closed, and "what Ms Rice needs to do is cancel her trip to Malaysia and return to the Middle East sharpish, and not just to Israel. The US has to end its policy of blocking diplomacy".

As for Beckett, so disappointing so far, she must go to Tehran. Jack Straw did it repeatedly but so far she's shown no inclination and shows every sign of cow-towing to US policy. Time to change that for the sake of peace.

As the leader puts it,

"No country can expect to face attacks from outside, as Israel has done, without reply. But Israel's reply has been completely disproportionate. This is Olmert's war, largely about the new Israeli prime minister establishing his political credibility, needing to demonstrate he is as tough as Ariel Sharon. He may have miscalculated. Britain should not be party to Olmert's folly."

Update: This is how Israel's Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, interpreted the failure to reach agreement at Rome. He told Israel Army Radio today that "We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world ... to continue the operation, this war, until Hizbullah won't be located in Lebanon and until it is disarmed".

Monday, July 24, 2006

The New Arabia

It's so easy in these times to get very upset and depressed about the situation in the Middle East and the uncertain implications for the well being of the world as a whole. The Iraq fiasco of 2003, and the seemingly terminal decline of it as a functioning state ever since, acts as an open wound in the very heart of the region. At the same time, Iran - a youthful and proud nation - is very much at a crossroads in its development, yet at the moment it feels that it is cornered by a hostile world.

Internal angst involving politics, the role of religion, womens rights and its relations with the West give a confusing and sometimes alarming impression to visitors and foreign powers alike as to the path which the country is set to take. The established Israeli policy of 'might is right', unleashed on many of its neighbours, and the regression - perhaps in part as a result of this - of a number of nations into a state of near feudal paralysis breeding extremism, poverty and despair, seems to make these apocalyptic visions all too prevalent in our current imaginings of the region.

Amidst all this turmoil, positive news is hard to come by. I have been fascinated therefore with a recent BBC Documentary series aired on the World Service which toured some of the often overlooked Arab states to get a feel for them and report back many positive things about what the future may hold. The series visited Dubai in the UAE, Oman and Qatar. All these states in different ways are using their wealth - primarily gained from oil and gas extraction - to expand and diversify their economies.

In the case of Dubai, which has solicited massive foreign investment, as well as using much of its own money, to transform a patch of desert into a modern city and transport hub, their efforts are well publicised. However, I was particularly interested to hear about the path being plotted by the government and people of Qatar.

Whereas Dubai wants to be seen as a Financial centre, Qatar - assured of the massive gas reserves which it is now selling around the world in liquefied form - is establishing itself as a seat of learning in the region. If Qatar is known at all in the West at present, it is most likely for being the base for the Arabic satellite television station al-Jazeera; a station which first rose to prominence during the second Gulf War and has since gained the respect of many journalists and media analysts throughout the world for its professionalism and its non-compromising and often controversial news output. The station, it is worth noting, is also soon to launch a Children's channel. Its makers hope that instead of simply showing cartoons, it will give watching children the opportunity to learn, and to learn how to question. The al-Jazeera Network receives its funding from the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani, who sees the channels as part of his plans for a parliamentary democracy in the Gulf state. It is free to criticise the Emir, and also – notably - other Arab governments.

Qatar is making impressive strides towards a liberal, Islamic and yet politically plural society, not least with the establishment of what is known as "Education City" on the outskirts of its capital Doha. The aim of this mega-campus of learning is to invite foreign universities to open up branches and to export their methods of learning. Unlike in traditional Arab education, classes are mixed and two thirds of the soon to number 8000 students are women. Teaching methods are a fusion of Western and Middle Eastern. Similar models of democratic forms of higher education are being established across the Middle East, most notably in Oman and the UAE.

As you might expect, traditional elements in all of these societies object to some of the reforms taking place. There is a tradition of tribalism which has hindered free elections, but this is being countered by the general will to move at suitable pace towards democracy. In Qatar every citizen now has the right to vote in upcoming elections and anyone can run for office. Further, north Kuwait has also recently held local elections where women could vote and stand as candidates.

The aim of a number of states in the region seems to be to build a framework of a more liberal society, but also to provide the know-how of how to make it work. A highly positive and encouraging move, and something which you may be forgiven for thinking is almost entirely lacking in a place like Iraq, where a system has been imposed without the gradual introduction of democratic institutions and facilities. The adjustment period in that nation's case is proving to be very traumatic indeed.

These Gulf States, which are currently and rapidly diversifying and exploring ways of introducing a progressive education system, want the legacy of their vast oil and gas wealth to be used to benefit their future generations - not simply to live in benevolence, but to contribute to an Arab Renaissance whereby Arab ideas and inventions are once again helping to shape the course of human history.

[Blogging by Dan]

Saturday, July 22, 2006

impossible wisdom

I read the most wonderful sentence in the book I'm reading - Black Swan Green by David Mitchell - this morning, which is my new mantra in the face of everything:

"Me, I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right."

Thursday, July 20, 2006

haircuts and beards

Two things I learned today:

1. I hate having conversations with barbers. While I'm having my hair cut, I mean.

2. Pick your post-office monkey carefully.

I had to queue for about fifteen minutes in the post office earlier today to get my passport renewed, and as I approached the front of the line and observed the staff behind the counter, it occurred to me strongly that the four middle aged staff, kind expressions all, would be much more efficient than the lad on the central counter. Something about the hoxton fin, set jaw and vacant expression. So naturally I got him and presented my documents. He looked at my application forms. Fine. He looked at my new passport photographs. Fine. He looked at my passport itself, specifically the photo in the back, and frowned.

Lad: do you have any proof this is you?
Me: *I stare at him incredulously. Granted the photo in my passport was taken ten years ago but I flatter myself to think that, apart from a few natural changes, I've really not aged all that badly. Further, for the first time in about ten years I've actually just had my hair cut - this morning! - into the same style as I wore when I was a whippersnappeer. And I'm still pencil thin. It's plainly me.*
Lad: I think we'll need to get this verified.
Me: What do you mean?
Lad: By a third party. Countersigned.
Me: Is that really necessary?
Lad: You've changed quite a lot.
Me: Ten years does that to you.
Lad: *points lamely at me* You've got a beard.
Me: Yes.
Lad: You'll need it countersigned. Someone has to write 'I verify that this is Jonathan Shipley' on the back.
Me: OK. Who does it have to be?
Lad: It can be anyone?
Me: Anyone?
Lad: Yes.
Me: *looks stunned*
Lad: Oh, maybe it should be someone who's known you for more than two years.
Me: OK, then.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dan tells me about Reading...

I'm going to Reading twice in the next week or so; once on Friday on work business, and once again next week for Womad. In the pub, stewing on our pints, I asked Dan, "so, what's Reading actually like?".

For a few minutes he looked down at his pint and said nothing. And then this was what he said...

"I know where the epicentre of new Labour, corporate, consumerist blandness lies. I know it well. It's in Reading, Berkshire.

I have found myself having the same recurrent daydream recently, where I am on the BBC2 show Room 101 and Paul Merton asks me what I would like to condemn forever to that room in Broadcasting House made famous by Orwell. I quite enjoy it really, so many things leap into my thoughts of what I think the world would be better without - SUVs, this morally corrupt and tiresome Labour government, Razorlight... but the one thing that leaps higher than the rest is the town that I grew up near, Reading. My simple but long held grudge against the place is that despite its affluence and its growing population it can’t rise above the terminal blandness and ‘middle Englandness’ it seems to have always had.

OK, a little history. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Reading was described as the ‘average town of Britain’. Well deserved too, for had you visited this town during this period you would have witnessed the badly planned emergence of a country market town into what its leaders hoped would be a regional commercial and transport hub.

Situated nearly midway on the M4 corridor between London and Bristol, Reading did grow rapidly and succeeded in attracting businesses to central Berkshire. Hordes of the middle classes followed (my family included) and the suburbs swelled and merged with surrounding villages. The town built amongst other projects what was called the ‘Inner Distribution Road’ (or IDR for those from the ‘Ding) smashing through poor neighbourhoods and linking together larger roads in its path. The citizens of Reading could now visit their concrete Civic monstrosities - such as the Hexagon theatre - with comparative ease. Or they could go to… well that’s about it really. Since the closure of its last live music venue there’s been nowhere for a mid to large sized band to play. The arts centre in the town's south keeps a small flame burning but Reading doesn’t generally seem to be put out by it’s loss.

The town points to the fact that it hosts the Reading and Womad festivals and true enough they are long standing fixtures, but they are both located away from the town centre and you would be hard pressed to find any representation of either of them around town aside from going in to HMV to buy tickets. Womad even advertises itself as being held in Rivermead, not Reading. The music Reading likes is heard coming out of its late license bars on Friday and Saturday whilst Bouncers outside places with names like The Ice Bar and Reflex check to see if you are wearing smart shoes and an obligatory shirt from Top Man or H&M.


Reading is rubbish… Reading is awful local radio. Jingles for ‘Reading Bedding’ and local car dealerships are built around Robbie Williams songs which then echo down the streets and in the shops.

It is bored and dissatisfied young people planning their escape, it’s a football club who plays in a shed resembling an out of town B&Q and whose torrid home games with their dire atmosphere are (ahem) bound to take the Premiership by storm this season.

Reading is bland office blocks dominating the sky line which are filled with no-name insurance companies. Reading is the ability to build yet more blandness whilst not realizing the towns’ already major flaw. Reading is ensuring its population is enslaved to the pursuit of owning every little desirable commodity bought from its multitude of retail outlets (found of course everywhere else) and filling its 4 bedroom houses above the level of the dado rails with stuff nobody needs. Reading is the uncomfortable mix of new highly paid IT workers and their families mixing (or not) with the working classes of the west of the town.

Reading is a rip off, Reading is unfriendly, Reading is in a rush to purchase and then to get home.

There is thankfully a resistance movement to the all encompassing blandness, though. Small bands of the resistant hang out in some of the very few independent bars. As you enter one of these you are given a knowing smile as if you too have survived the street fighting outside, made it in and are amongst friends now. I remember the Friends Solidarity Centre and café Iguana in the town being like this. There is then perhaps hope.

I wonder that if John Betjeman was alive today he may be inspired to write something like;

Come friendly Hezbollah rockets and fall on Reading!
You can start maybe with Reading Bedding…

Sorry Reading, I wish you well but you really are the pits."

Thanks Dan!!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

library blogging 2 (by Vic)

(Tramp is sitting at a table, scratching his grizzled beard with a weatherbeaten hand. He is reading "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People")

library blogging (by Vic)

Kid: Mum, can I get a book out?
Mum: Yes, of course. What is it?
Kid: It's a poetry book called 'Pets Pets Pets'
Mum: Oh really? What's it about?

still running the world

Jesus Christ, have you seen this - the transcript of Bush and Blair caught live on tape today:

Bush: Yo Blair How are you doing?
Blair: I'm just...
Bush: You're leaving?
Blair: No, no, no not yet. On this trade thingy...[inaudible]
Bush: yeah I told that to the man
Blair: Are you planning to say that here or not?
Bush: If you want me to
Blair: Well, it's just that if the discussion arises...
Bush: I just want some movement.
Blair: Yeah
Bush: Yesterday we didn't see much movement
Blair: No, no, it may be that it's not, it maybe that it's impossible
Bush: I am prepared to say it
Blair: But it's just I think what we need to be an opposition
Bush: Who is introducing the trade
Blair: Angela
Bush: Tell her to call 'em
Blair: Yes
Bush: Tell her to put him on them on the spot.Thanks for the sweaters it's awfully thoughtful of you
Blair: It's a pleasure
Bush: I know you picked it out yourself
Blair: Oh, absoultely, in fact I knitted it myself

And I'm cutting before Bush starts talking about Syria...

How does the chorus to the new Jarvis Cocker single go again?

Monday, July 17, 2006

dog blogging

Me and Nat took a canine friend of ours, Gatsby, out for a walk at one in the morning the other night. It was the first time I have ever walked a dog, I think, unless you count holding on to a dog's lead - his name was Jack - for a few minutes during a holiday in Wales when I was a child. Gatsby is a pretty big dog, too, and I am a notorious weakling, so I was satisfied to discover that I was capable of administering a decent grip on the hound at all times, even when he became animated at the distant sight of a black shape crawling across the black grass up ahead. I held firm and led Gatsby into St. Anne's Well Gardens, where we held our position while Natalia went to investigate. Having pulled rank, I walked Gatsby back over to a safe distance and found that the object of his attention was a small hedgehog. And looking up I saw another retreating into the distance.

a hedgehog, yesterday.

Soon we were joined by one of those groups of teenage boys who perpetually hang around parks at one o'clock in the morning, and in the light from someone's mobile phone we examined the critter, who, neglecting to roll into a ball, was clearly a pretty tough character and not too intimidated. Well, I hope not. While we, gregarious from drink - we'd spent the evening in the pub - chatted to the kids (all cooed over the dog and one took his wallet from his pocket to show me a photo of his own), Natalia bent over and lifted the hedgehog's two front feet, gently, as if he were a wheelbarrow. I stroked his needles and thought of the stiff twigs and bristles on an outdoor broom. It would be in keeping with the bucolic nature of the scene if I could then report that he ambled gingerly off, but in fact the animal reached a pretty good pace as he scuttled away, leaving us wondering why we were all there standing in a big circle, our conversation finished.

Dogs - and hedgehogs - are excellent spurs for random conversations. And blog posts.

Friday, July 14, 2006

on the stereo

Currently liztening to:

1. The Young Knives - Loughborough Suicide: Easily the best thing the thrilling 'Knives have done to date, this is just tremendous; an elegant, caustic little slice of small-town ennui which occasionally splutters into The Jam-style fury. The lyrics marginally edge it over the tune, with Henry spluttering "I'll never go down fighting" while House intones "Well, it's cold cold cold and I think I'm gonna die in here / considering Loughborough suicide, which I'm definitely going to do, this year / And if you take a look outside then the answer to your question is quite clear / that you may as well leave because there's nothing else to do around here". When the guitars briefly erupt into a kinetic little riff half way through something physical happens and I want to punch the air. Ace.

2. Lily Allen - Little Things: Apart from the luminous 'LDN', my favourite Lily Allen song so far, from the first wistful lines ("Sometimes I find myself sitting back and reminiscing / Especially when I have to watch other people kissing") to the way she alternates between sassy wit ("Drinkin' tea in bed, watching DVDs / when I discovered all your dirty grotty magazines") and girlishness ("the first time that you introduced me to your friends / and you could tell I was nervous, so you held my hand") - it's lovely. Best of all, obviously, is her voice, which is unshowy yet demonstrative, and totally convincing, especially when she sings lines like "I know it sounds lame but its so true". It is.

3. Midlake - Roscoe: Dan is loudly proclaiming Midlake's 'The Trials of Van Occupanther' as record of the year so far, and he mightn't be far wrong - it's a super little record, all beguiling harmonies, soft-rock piano riffs, buzzing synths and bucolic calm. It may seem lazy to pick the first track on the album as the best song, but it's really beautiful. Clincher is the escalating harmonies and the line "Whenever I was a child I wondered what if my name had changed into something more productive like... Roscoe", which triggers a little cascade of shivers. Soft rock need not sound like The Feeling.

4. Sol Seppy - The Bells of 1 2 LP: Another Dan-discovery, via last month's Wire Tapper, this is a lovely, insular record. You can test the water by downloading a track here. If you can't be bothered to do that, I'll just tell you that the album is strange and beautiful; acoustic folkiness switching with churning Velvets guitars, the odd glitchsome beat and some ethereal, rather gorgeous vocals. And Sol Seppy mainwoman Sophie Michalitsianos is kind of, erm, pretty, too. And stop looking at me like that. I would have said the same of the Young Knives if it were true.

5. Jarvis Cocker - Running The World: chiefly here because it proves that Jarvis can still do it, rather than because it's streets ahead of the other stuff I've been listening to this month (honorable mentions to Quarterstance, Tapes 'n Tapes, Herbert, Infinite Livez and Plan B); it's much as you'd expect, really - lots of keyboards, neat guitars and a het up Jarvis on fine lyrical form, claiming that it isn't cream that rises to the top in life but shit, and that the "cunts are still ruling the world". Neat, and right. You can download the song here if you're minded.

agents of peace

It's not like we expect world leaders to bring about instant change, to suddenly intervene in a positive way. We know from history that civil wars, border disputes, tribal rivalries and religious squabbles are ludicrously hard to heal; so no-one expects of George Bush that he will be capable of sorting out the current situation in Lebanon. His track record and reputation in the Middle East make that a comical notion. But we might expect, at the very least, a measured statement, something which demonstrates that, even if he retains a clear sympathy for the Israeli side of the equation, he has an understanding of the situation and a desire to do what he can to alleviate the tension and prevent more needless suffering. Surely?

And yet this is his statement, stunning in its bone-headedness, when asked how he saw the situation yesterday, "My attitude is this: there are a group of terrorists who want to stop the advance of peace. Those of us who are peace living (sic) must work together to help the agents of peace". Canada's Stephen Harper, meanwhile - with whom Blair spent yesterday (miffed at Bush cuddling up to Merkel perhaps?) - goes a step further. "I think Israel's response under the circumstances has been measured", he said. There is no argument that the Israeli soldiers should not be immediately released, and the actions of Hezbollah obviously need condemning in the strongest terms. But Israel's ludicrous threat to turn the clock back twenty years, their actions in destroying the economic infrastructure of Beirut and killing many civilians along the way are violently dispropportionate and excessive. Any conception that this Israeli government is an 'agent of peace' must surely now be dissmissed as a fantasy.

Friday, July 07, 2006

guardian linking to sources

Perhaps the Guardian have been doing this for a while and I have missed it, but I just noticed that in today's article on the fact that 82% of polled Israelis apparently would endorse the assasination of Hamas leaders, the paper has started including links in the main body of the article. Generally speaking I think that this is an excellent idea and a valuable way of acknowledging sources and verifying statistics. They only do it twice, and in a rather understated way, but my prediction is that we'll see a lot more of this in months to come. Cool.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

SM / Pavement rumours

Well, I don't believe a word of this, but I'm still upset about the decline of Sleater-Kinney, so I'm using it to cheer myself up. According to some gossip doing the rounds on the gossip thread at the Sonic Youth website:

"i just got out of the sonic youth show at bonnaroo (im in the press/media tent) so we have internet capabilities. Stephen Malkmus just did Expressway to yr skull with sy as the encore. also backstage, not to start rumors, but i heard malkmus talking to mark ibold and saying 'man we should get back together, we shud get back together and do some shows'"

I'm such a Pavement geek that I get a kick out of Malkmus just being on stage on with Mark Ibold again (Ibold is playing bass for SY since Jim O'Rourke left), so you can imagine how I feel about the prospect of a Pavement reunion. I'm sure it won't happen, but just think of it...

There's a new SM track up on Stereogum, incidentally. It's practically unlistenable. Yay!

oh no!

Damn. You have a decent week and a really nice Friday night. And then you get home and discover that Sleater-Kinney just split up. Fuck fuck fuck.