Saturday, March 31, 2007

change in libya?

Libya is a nation of extremes.

"I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay still and brilliant beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of eveything".
The narrator above, exiled from Libya in Hisham Matar's 2006 novel 'In The Country Of Men', surmises the twin reality of Libya, on one hand a bright, luminous, prosperous North African country, and on the other a place of shade, of darkness, where 30 years of Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi's Jamahiriya regime have forced dissidents abroad, or vanished them, rarely granting any mercy to their opponents.

Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa and, possessing an abundancy of oil, the richest of the Northern region. It has the potential, according to Anthony Giddens, a former director of the LSE, to become the Norway of North Africa, prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking. That such a statement could be made by a respected academic and not treated with derision demonstrates that much has changed in Libya in recent years, and indeed it has.

The country has accepted (partial) responsibility for Lockerbie, it has renounced its rusting nuclear weapons programme, and Gaddafi, that most virulent of anti-Westerners, has even travelled as far as Brussels to preach from his 'little green book'. Accordingly, the world has reacted with cautious - and not so cautious - optimism. The US, Libya's most violent detractor, has reopened diplomatic ties and removed Libya from its list of states which sponsor terrorism. Gaddafi has intimated that it is time to open up economic freedoms in a state where private property was once all but outlawed. Libya is slowly re-entering the international community. According to Wikipedia,

"Since 2003 the country has made efforts to normalize its ties with the European Union and the United States and has even coined the catchphrase, 'The Libya Model', an example intended to show the world what can be achieved through negotiation rather than force when there is goodwill on both sides".
Tripoli, a gorgeous jewel on the Meditteranean, and even the Saharan desterts of the South, are now, once more, a viable tourist destination, and anyone who makes the trip will find stunning architecture, dazzling sun and a population keen to stress that they are 'not bad people'. Joanna O'Connor, writing for the Observer, notes that:

"Something very odd is happening. This is the fourth shop in Tripoli's old town my friend Andie and I have walked into, clutching our hot little wad of money, and so far we've failed to spend a single penny. It started in the market, when the man on the fruit stall wouldn't let us pay for a bag of dates. Then, in the patissierie, the boy with the eyelashes as long as a camel's shyly insisted that we take two pieces of baklava. And now Walid is fastening the beads around my neck and inviting us to have a cappuccino with him in his tiny Aladdin's cave of a shop in the copper souk.

This wouldn't happen in Marrakesh, I think to myself. But this is not Morocco, this is Libya, where tourists are still rare enough to be seen as a source of mild curiosity rather than wallets on legs. Against the deafening clang of hammers on metal from the surrounding workshops, Walid says something I am to hear several times during my stay here: 'Your gift to us is that you visit us and you go home and tell people that Libya is not a bad place. We are not bad people'".
But Gaddafi has always been characterised - in the West - as just that; bad. And although he retains broad support from a people who describe him simply as 'The Leader', he shows no sign of allowing political reform to accompany his new-found enthusiasm for globalisation. Nor has his contempt for democracy softened: "In Libya there is no dictatorship, no injustice; there is no conflict over power," he insisted on Al-Jazeera recently:

"People feel they have power in their hands. In the west, power is money, not democracy. Is it democracy, when half the people don't want you to remain president?"

Giddens was present on that occasion, and gave Gaddafi's argument short-shrift:

"I have no time for that argument and said so. It is just not true that multiparty democracy doesn't have a popular mandate in Western countries. More than 95% of people in such societies agree that they want to live in such a democracy. In Libya, what is a nice idea in principle — self-rule through a plethora of peoples' committees — works out quite differently in practice. Gaddafi steps into the vacuum left by the absence of effective mechanisms of government, and the result is a de facto dictatorship."
Indeed it is, and yet Gaddafi's enthusiasm for his unique 'state of the masses', Jamahiriya, is undimmed - presumably because it affords him absolute power. In the meantime his wider philosophy, beyond his concept of a 'direct democracy' of local councils (and no political parties) is impossible to pin down. The Little Green Book has influenced no other state, and Gaddafi himelf has veered from one popular philosophy to another, at one time or other being an advocate of Socialism, Arab-nationalism, Pan-Africanism, Islamism and now Globalisation. He offers no coherent narrative, in other words.

And yet he finds himself suddenly in demand. In fairness, Gaddafi's reputation in Africa has never quite tallied with his demagogue status in the west. He is increasingly seen as an elder Statesman of African politics, winning praise from the likes of Nelson Mandela (indeed, one of Mandela's grandchildren was baptized "Gaddafi"), and lauded for his continent-wide aid contribution and willingness to absorb Sub-Saharan Africans into the Libyan job market.

He remains an enigma - a talisman of sorts in Africa, a tyrant in his own country, a bogeyman to the west, suddenly a friend and ally, a simple man who lives an austere life, and now, perhaps, a man ready to lead a country which boasts the highest recorded temperature in history, out of the darkness and into the light. Some people are optimistic, and some believe he will never change.


This post was originally published on Hii Dunia on the 22nd March 2007. In my next post on Libya, I'll look at the prospects for reform and consider how genuine they are. And question just what the implications of cuddling up to Africa's most eccentric father-figure really are.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lemonheads tour dates

I know that you're thinking, oh, that was then and this is now. But you need to go and see the Lemonheads on their UK tour in May. I'm determined to make at least one, maybe more, of the dates - although it's really annoying they're not playing Brighton.

3rd May - Savoy, Cork
4th May - The Warwick, Galway
5th May - Ambassador, Dublin
6th May - Mandela Hall & Shine, Belfast
7th May - The Cluny, Newcastle upon Tyne
8th May - Liquid Room, Edinburgh
9th May - The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
10th May - The Leadmill, Sheffield
13th May - Cardiff Solus, Cardiff
14th May - Koko, London
15th May - Carling Academy, Birmingham

fuck sarkozy

It's pleasing to note that, over in France, Segolene Royal is beginning to catch up with Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls. This is partly because, where Royal seemed flappable and Sarkozy assured in the early stages, he's been slipping up a little recently too. Most damningly, he made a complete fool of himself on French TV by exposing his ignorance of the Middle East and Islam in much the same way that Silverstre Reyes did in the States.

Sarkozy was asked a straightforward and unambiguous question and got the answer entirely wrong, just as Royal did in similar circumstances when asked about France's nuclear submarines. But Sarkozy's mistake is less forgivable given the importance of the Middle East in global politcs - especially for a man who recently sent a letter of support to the French paper accused of insulting Muslims by printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

Asked whether Al-Quaida was Sunni or Shia, Sarkozy nervously expounded that "We cannot qualify al-Qaida like that!", protesting that one mustn't restrict membership of a terrorist organisation to that of "an ethnicity". Quite apart from the fact that there is no ethnic divide between Sunnis and Shias, it's almost impossible to believe that a major politician could be unaware of the fact that Al-Quaida is Sunni. Scrabbling to justify his ignorance, Sarkosy used the fact that the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Pradication et le Combat recently joined Al-Qaida to back up his erroneous belief that both Sunnis and Shias were part of the terrorrist group. Yet both, as Sean over at the Human Province points out, are "virulently Sunni".

Back on more familiar ground for Sarko, it's very little surprise to find that, with trouble once more brewing on the streets of Northern Paris, he has waded back in to confirm his hardline credentials. With mixed reports circulating over the origins of a riot near the Gard Du Nord, he's denounced the rioters as being on the side of "fraudsters, cheats and dishonest people". It's hard to resist speculating that while the fighting may have begun because a 32 year old man punched a ticket agent who asked to see his metro pass, or may have started because police assaulted the man and broke his hand, it almost certainly got out of hand because the young blacks and Arabs of the suburbs are sick of racist police and arsehole politicians calling them "racaille".

It would be foolish to say that Royal or Bayrou (who is running by far the best campaign of the three, and yet who is looking increasingly like a Nader candidate) represent the suburbs much better, yet Royal, unlike Sarkozy, visits Clichy sous Bois and her fellow socialists denounced the riots as a legacy of Sarkozy's "provocative habits and language". Bayrou, for his part, has indicated that the blame should be shared, and insisted that "it is very important to end this climate of perpetual confrontation between police and some citizens.".

One good thing that rose from the ashes left behind in last year's riots is the fact that many involved, previously disenchanted with the political system, have this time registered to vote and their message will mirror the grafitti plastered over their decaying estates: "Fuck Sarkozy".

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

new and notable

The Assistant Blog Digest is now listed as 'new and notable' on iTunes. For those of you who have had difficulty using that application, or can't utilise the XML feed, here's a straightforward copy of episode one as an MP3.

Assistant Blog Digest - Episode One.

More info on the podcast can be found here.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

pricks on the radio

Listening to debates on talk radio about whether or not we should apologise for slavery always makes for brilliant entertainment - it brings the idiots out. I don't actually think it's enormously important whether we do apologise or not, but it's always interesting when people get tremendously worked up about the idea that we certainly must not. There's some fuckwit on BBC 5 Live at the moment putting forward the indignant "it ain't nuffink to do with me, mate" line. He's arguing with a Nigerian woman who is angry that the average Brit is so invested in denying that, as she puts it, 'this country is built on the blood of Africans'. At one point she asks him, "do you know what it's like to be a slave?".

He puts on his best dismissive voice.

"Not particularly, nah", he replies.

Well, not at all, really, thinking about it.

UPDATE: A woman has just pointed out "It was a terrible thing but it was in the past, it's finished, why should we apologise? I mean, should we demand an apology from every ancestor of a cannibal who...".

The presenter cuts the call silent. I think I must be listening to a spoof radio show.

assistant blog digest

Assistant Blog Digest is a new monthly podcast from Assistant Blog. It rounds up a month's blogging by picking out the most interesting posts from this here site and collating them in a half-hour(ish) long audio format. Read by me, in my best plummy English tones, and containing a litany of half-starts and stutters, I hope you enjoy it. Subscribing via the iTunes music store will mean that new episodes turn up unasked in your iTunes folder towards the end of every month. iPod users will find the enhanced MP3 contains chapters to aid navigation - in other words, if you skip the politics posts here, or the more personal ones, you can do the same quickly and easily on Assistant Blog Digest. Lastly, the podcast is, of course, entirely free, and any and all feedback is keenly appreciated.

This link - provided by Apple - is not 100% reliable, but it should take you to the Assistant Blog Digest page on iTunes. If it doesn't, load up iTunes independently, go to the music store, and search for 'Assistant Blog'.

For non-iTunes users, a direct link to the MP3 will follow shortly. Those of you who access podcasts through bloglines, ipodder, google reader or another RSS/XML feed aggregator, you can find - and subscribe to - the XML file here.

The podcast on iTunes, for the curious, should look like this:

Let me know if you encounter any problems.

Friday, March 23, 2007

assistant songs

I'm going to re-publish some of my band's songs over the next few weeks, so that anyone who would like to listen in, can. I'll take a few paragraphs on each occasion to describe what I was thinking about - if anything - when I wrote the words. Apologies if you've heard all these songs before, or heard me prattle on about the meanings down the pub.

First up: 'August Song' (right click to download)

I wrote a bunch of break-up songs in the year surrounding my break-up with Vic, but they weren't all personal songs (or rather, not all about me and Vic) and around half were written before, as opposed to after, we called it a day. Whether I was in some way anticipating the split or not, I'm not sure, but it began when I listened to a couple of songs which really pierced me and got me interested in the idea of the break-up song, leading me to explore it in quite a few lyrics.

From that period 'What It Means', 'Sixteen Months', 'Easy to Leave', 'Criticism' and 'Known To Run' were all about breaking up or being broken up. The two songs that bowled me over were Sebadoh's 'Brand New Love', which includes the lyric "any thought could be the beginning / of the brand new tangled web you're spinning / anyone could be your brand new love", which I found tremendously uplifting, and the bittersweet observation, in Leonard Cohen's 'Famous Blue Raincoat', where the narrator accepts his former lover's new partner has been good for her: "Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good / so I never tried".

'August Song' was an attempt at an optimistic expression, too, being all about the moment when the past recedes and the pain becomes no more than an ache, or less. In this instance, I imagined meeting up with a past lover, keen to be reunited, but realising at that moment that more has changed than you think. So I sing:

"I know I asked you here
To tell you I still love you.
But the year's passed faster than I knew.
And suddenly I see that I exaggerated you."


I was trying to get at the politics of love a bit, too, which I perhaps managed a bit less well - that slightest of power struggles, where you try to assess the other person's feelings, seeing what strengths or weaknesses you face. Was trying to get at that with the chorus, "August shouldn't be this breezy / do you still need me?". I guess I was the person who broke up this hypothetical relationship, and was considering a re-tread.

It's quite a nice song, I think - musically I was getting really tired of loud guitars, so everything I wrote at that point had as little guitar as possible. We wanted this to sound dubby and spacious, and I think it does.

Leave your comments in the comments box if you have any feedback.

lifted from the guardian

Flushed with the excitement that I now have two potential contacts at the Guardian through whom I can pursue my seduction-by-stealth of Ms. Barton (apart from Assistant Blog's very own Guardian Spy, Ali's about to move in with a Guardianista), I find a couple of articles worth linking to in today's paper:

First off, an interesting interview with Mike Scott of the Waterboys, who made the vain error of wading in and editing his own Wikipedia article without providing sources! What an idiot - except of course, surely he himself is the most assured source on the subject of Mike Scott. Well, I guess there have been enough self-serving, fact-erasing celebrity memoirs in recent years to crush that argument flat. Anyway, still uneasy with the circling motions of fame, he's a little reassured regardless, because they finally accepted his alterations.

Alexis Petridis, meanwhile has a little fun with Enter Shikari - or at least, with their fans. I particularly liked this extract, where Coops, a 17 year old fan, outlines his gig-going philosophy:

"The passion in the music, I think. Like, you're rocking out so hard and then you're raving out so hard, everyone's having such a good time and it gets too hot and you don't want to stop, because it's boring if you stop. You keep going and going and going and you can't hack it any more because it's brutal."
I love that teenage logic. Gigs are brilliant, right, but then sometimes, you stop rocking, and then it's, like, boring. Teenagers are like sharks, they have to keep moving forward, or else they die.

Oh, and here's an interesting aside from the same article. "The Times illustrated a story about the band winning an NME award with a picture of Shakira".

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to 'Rough Crossings' on the BBC tonight - Simon Schama's film about the journey from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone undertaken by the black slaves who escaped the plantations to fight on Britain's side in the American War of Independence. I've read the book, and it's fascinating and beautifully written. Today's TV page highlight's Schama's adroitness with descriptions, noting his "the wind-chipped edge of eastern Canada".

Today's Hail Hail Rock and Roll is no less lyrical, Laura Barton painting a picture of the love for a band resembling a tree you feel compelled to climb as it puts down root below you. "You place your weight on each branch with trepidation, in case it cannot carry you; you try to discern if it is a sapling love or a true, oakish thing".

Each of Barton's fine-tuned articles is like an acorn planted, recalling the Mountain Goats song she quotes, "Coming up through the cracks / Pale green things", which stay with you and grow.

joke

Censorship and repression in Egypt is nothing new, but the state is clearly ratcheting up its intolerance for freedom of expression. That sounds like the first line of a ponderous essay, but actually, it's just a prologue for this rather funny Egyptian joke, courtesy of The Arabist.

Hosni Mubarak goes to a primary school to talk to the kids. After his talk he offers question time.

One little boy puts up his hand and Mubarak asks, "what is your question, Ramy?"

Ramy says, "I have 4 questions:
First: Why have you been a president for 25 years?
Second: Why don't you have a vice-president?
Third: Why are your sons taking over the country economically and politically?
Fourth: Why is Egypt in a miserable economic state and you're not doing anything about it?"

Just at that moment, the bell rings for break. Mubarak informs the kids that they will continue after the break.

When they resume Mubarak says, "OK, where were we? Oh! That's right…question time. Who has a question?"

A different little boy puts up his hand. Mubarak points him out and asks him what his name is.

"Tamer," the boy says.

"And what is your question, Tamer?"

"I have six questions:
First: Why have you been president for 25 years?
Second: Why don't you have a vice-president?
Third: Why are your sons taking over the country economically and politically?
Fourth: Why is Egypt in a miserable economic state and you're not doing anything about it?
Fifth: Why did the bell ring 20 minutes early?
Sixth: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH RAMY!!!????"

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The changing face of Libya

With the Republican administration in the USA so keen to label and classify states in the Middle East as sponsors of terror and axes of evil, it's a curious thing that they have afforded Libya a reprieve in the last few years, and taken them off the list. Gaddafi, for so long a bogeyman to the West, is now 'on our side' in the 'war on terror', and there have been cautious murmerings to the effect that Gaddafi is at last reforming the North African country and opening up to the free market.

In the first of a couple of posts I'm going to write for Hii Dunia, I've tried to provide an overview to Libya's new role as friend and ally of the West. An extract follows:

"The country has accepted (partial) responsibility for Lockerbie, it has renounced its rusting nuclear weapons programme, and Gaddafi, that most virulent of anti-Westerners, has even travelled as far as Brussels to preach from his 'little green book'. Accordingly, the world has reacted with cautious - and not so cautious - optimism. The US, Libya's most violent detractor, has reopened diplomatic ties and removed Libya from its list of states which sponsor terrorism. Gaddafi has intimated that it is time to open up economic freedoms in a state where private property was once all but outlawed. Libya is slowly re-entering the international community".
Go to Hii Dunia to read the full article; Libya is a fasinating country, so I hope my post gets that across to some extent.

test

Hello readers - please ignore this temporary post, unless you're feeling super curious, in which case right click and download if you like; but only if you let me know what you think. Only a work in progress anyway, in beta, if you like:

Hope this works...

activity / blogging round up

Working on lots of stuff at the moment, so here's a round-up of what I've got on the go:

i) A bunch of new songs for my band, all of which are in fairly early stages, but sounding good - need to write some proper lyrics written and get going on producing demos. So far they're all quite folky and sedate, less willfully awkward than stuff I've done before.

ii) Am stewing and stirring at some unfinished posts for Hii Dunia, a development blog I sometimes contribute to. Working on a couple of articles on Libya chiefly, the first of which should be up in the next few days.

iii) I'm working on a new podcast - something quite different this time. Not sure how long it'll take to get it sorted, but I'm enthusiastic.

iv) There'll be some longish posts here in the next few days too, starting with a review of ITV's dramatisation of Mansfield Park, which was on last week.


All of which adds up to the fact that I've nothing new to post right now, but there'll be plenty of stuff shortly. In the meantime, I thought I'd round up what my friends and favourite bloggers have been writing about this week.

Ali, over at split down the middle, has just got back from a week in the Maldives, where she has been killing fish and fighting sharks, but her blog has been expertly maintained in her absence by Vic, who is clearly a genius-blogger in waiting. Here's a short extract of one of her recent posts:

"As all mothers know, the biggest battles they have with their children concern what is eaten and what is worn, and that’s because the power to define yourself physically is no small matter. So whenever I hear one of those ‘and finally’ news stories about a toddler who insists on wearing a Spiderman costume day and night, or will only wear the colour red, I cheer inwardly. Whatever makes you feel good, and more importantly, whatever doesn’t make you feel stupid, is what you should wear."
Now that Ali's back, meanwhile, we're about to lose her to fancy London, which is rubbish, but at least we'll have somewhere to stay in London now, and will act all hurt and dejected if we're not invited up within like, two days, of her moving up there. She's changing work, too, so her post-holiday blogs have a touch of trepidation about them:

"OK, so with the work thing, it's going to be a change from the insipid world of law and the boring cyclical nature of my work as a legal marketing executive, which of course, is a massive bonus, but what is it going to be like? I feel a mixture of excitement and terror, which I have to say is better than the numb, dull, laborious dread of the previous year. I have to teach myself to embrace the change and see the whole thing as a massive and extremly steep learning curve, which, of course there is every chance of me slipping backwards down, like one of the hapless kid competitors on 'We are the Champions'."
If she's looking for sympathy she shouldn't have just spent a week in the Maldives!!!

Nat is away too, now, although weirdly it was snowing in Spain the other day. Nevertheless, it sounds like the weather is improving, and Nat's getting a much-deserved break.

"At my sister's place I sat in the garden which was showered with sunlight. It was peaceful and only the birds and dogs barking could be heard. Before lunch, I picked an orange from the orange tree in her garden and ate it right there. A juicy, tasty orange, it tasted like a real orange, it was still semi-alive. Surrounded by her dogs I ate it and enjoyed the simple pleasures of life."
For those of who aren't on holiday, however, life rumbles on with the normal daily confusions. It's all getting a bit much for Kat, who, it appears, is as dozy as me when it comes to getting on the right train, tube or bus. But the difference is that she makes mistakes through getting distracted, whereas I'm just stupid:

"Every woman is good at multitasking - with the exception of myself. Yesterday i took the wrong tram and didn't realize it until about five stops later. My brain was obviously not able to talk to my mum on my mobile, read the tram number "5" AND come to the conclusion that the tram in front of me was not the "J" tram that I had planned on getting on to. How it is possible to fail at such simple things will always remain a mystery lo less dreamy people - like my flatmate Sanne. I don't know how many times she's already thrown one of her little tantrums when she had to discover again that I had managed to take some really dirty forks or knives out of our somtimes malfunctioning dishwasher and put them back into the drawers in all innocence."
Lastly, like me, Dave found the last Bear Grylls programme unintentionally absurd - irritating, even - although he veers rather further towards visceral anger than I did. His entire post is hilarious, so go read it.

"Rather than asking the boom operator for some of his packed lunch, Grylls finds a fallen tree, snaps off a rotting branch and shovels a handful of the emerging grubs into his mouth, taking care to make the spectacle as explicit as possible, grimacing and gagging; You can't help thinking of an unpopular schoolchild desperately trying to impress his peers by going through with a dare to lick some dogshit."
Brilliant.

state of the art

Over on the Art of Noise blog (which I always forget to update) I'm taking part in the latest In The Dock feature, having lost both of my previous attempts (to prosecute Belle and Sebastien and defend misogyny in hip hop) and keen to get back on track. This time I'm up against Damo and prosecuting bands who straddle the very productive / low quality control divide. Brief extracts from both arguments follow.

Prosecution: "But for most of us, people who don't spend our time writing songs, but who certainly do spend our time slogging away in demeaning and demanding jobs, vying for parental approval yet cursing every wasted minute, the dream of being a musician has more to do with freedom - no more day jobs, no more scrabbling for half an hour to do something creative. The parties and the indulgences would be fine, but it's the idea of space that bewitches"

Defense: "Plenty of acts given lots of 'creative space' manage to come back with something massively self-indulgent. Sometimes it’s good to feel more than to think. The graveyard of dodgy records is littered with artists who were allowed to lose their focus... or worse, were forced to chuck something out quickly so that they could get back out on tour again."

Now go and vote on the best argument, whichever you think it is!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Africa's Time Wasters

During a time when renewed focus has been given to issues surrounding governance in the Developing World it is often a continual source of frustration to see that many African leaders persist in working to the clear detriment of their country’s interests.

In a not-too-serious look, and in no particular order, this article draws attention to and attempts to rate out of 5 some of Africa’s present day worst leaders and highlight their policies, legacies and crimes, all of which add up to their inclusion in this list - the ‘Time Wasters of Development’.

Sudan – President Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir

Pity the largely impoverished population of Africa’s largest state, especially if they belong to the half which is Black African. President Al-Bashir was ‘elected’ in 1996 but can trace his time in power back to his days in the Sudanese and Egyptian armies when in 1989 he overthrew a democratically elected government and set about establishing an authoritarian, as well as fundamentalist Islamic, state in Sudan. This gained momentum when in 1991 Sudan introduced the archaic Sharia law, exacerbating the already festering conflict with the largely Christian south of the country. Though an uneasy peace has been signed in relation to the south of the country, unaddressed grievences in the western region of Darfur in have helped renew Al-Bashir's notoriety.

The overt support his Government lends to the racist and genocidal nomadic militia known as the Janjaweed and its pillaging of the Darfur region, driving millions of its inhabitants into a desperate exile in neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic, has recently gained the World's attention. The International Community, however, has unfortunately fumbled its response to Al-Bashir, and China, with an eye on Sudanese oil, has even stepped up investment into the country.

Al-Bashir is fully implicated in the genocide occuring in Darfur which at present has claimed over 200,000 lives, yet neither the African Union nor the United Nations has been able to bring him to account. Al-Bashir is able to continue with his ruinous leadership safe in the knowledge that he is unlikely to be directly challenged by anyone, either internally or externally. Meanwhile life in the fractured country of Sudan for the majority of its inhabitants remains very bleak indeed.

Time Wasting Score: (5)






Equatorial Guinea
– President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo

For President Obiang, the man who treats the tiny Southern African state of Equatorial Guinea as his personal fiefdom, accusations over poor democratic accountability and corruption are not taken too seriously. Obiang, who deposed his own uncle in a coup in the late 1970s, likes to be known on his patch as El Jefe (the boss). Since the discovery of substantial oil and gas reserves in Equatorial Guinea’s territorial waters the hope has been raised that revenue gained from this can go to assist EG’s 0.5 Million people, most of whom live on less than $1 a day. Unfortunately, with El Jefe in charge, most of the money has found its way into his political allies and family’s personal bank accounts. In what is one of the most breathtaking examples of a leader gaining personally from his countries wealth, Obiang has personally pocketed over £300 Million.

A 2004 attempted coup backed by Spain, the United States and Britain (all of whom were possibly too embarrased by whom they were buying oil from) resulted in failure when the hired mercenaries were caught on flight in Zimbabwe and subsequantly jailed. Apparently Obiang was in anycase tipped off.

Last year the people of Equatorial Guinea may have been forgiven for feeling the need to throw a party with the news that Obiang was actually dying from inoperable Cancer. Those more cautious however would've soon realised that this may not be such good news because Obiang's eldest son would be his likely successor.

'Obiang junior' is by all accounts a nasty piece of work. Described by the country's opposition in exile as a known killer, he seems to spend all his time swanning around Paris and London spending his father's (or more precisely the people of Equatorial Guinea's) money on fast cars, large houses and fine food. He is a truely abhorent individual and any fair minded onlooker can only hope that somehow foreign powers step up their efforts in deposing this disgusting dynasty.
Time Wasting Score: (4)





The Gambia
– President Yahya Jammeh

Another Ex-Military man, President Jammeh’s contempt for Democracy (he has 'won' two elections through a mixture of intimidation and vote rigging) also extends to the contempt he has for his populace’s intelligence. Not content with running Gambia badly, he has recently taken the unbelievable step of claiming that he alone has a cure for HIV/AIDS and that it is made up of a herbal remedy known only to him. In a speech made recently at State House in Gambia’s Capital Banjul, President Jammeh said “I can treat asthma and HIV/Aids and the cure is a day’s treatment. Within three days the person should be tested again and I can tell you that he/she will be negative”. He went to say in a speech faithfully reproduced in the Gambian media that “I am not a witch doctor and in fact you cannot have a witch doctor. You are either a witch or a doctor”.

Tragically for ordinary Gambians, their President is wasting their potential for ongoing development and, it would seem, is cleary mad.


Time Wasting Score: (4)






Zimbabwe
– President Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who has recently spent over a Million Dollars celebrating his 83rd birthday (more than twice the average life expectancy of an average Zimbabwean male) is perhaps finally feeling the heat caused by his 26 years of misrule. Mugabe, increasingly embittered at the continual failure of his Neo-Marxist economic reforms has blamed everyone for his country's decline (his favourite being a Neo-Colonial cabal headed by Tony Blair) and with an increasing ferocity continued to clamp down on his opponents.

Mugabe once boasted that in addition to the several degrees he had gained whilst imprisioned by the British of the then Rhodesia, he also had gained a 'Degree in Violence'. The recent Police beatings of members of the main opposition the Movement for Democratic Change are testiment to that and to Mugabe's stoic determination to hold onto power.

Once seen as one of the more enlightened leaders of one of Africa's more prosperous, educated and liberal countries, the hope has long since faded for the ordinary people of Zimbabwe. The country itself is haemorrhaging people, it's economy is in free fall, and is breaking all kinds of records in the process - including the World's highest inflation rate and fastest drop in life expectancy. Zimbabwe now finds itself slumped towards the bottom of a great deal of global development indicators, a terrifying decline for a country which was once seen as being comparitively highly developed.

Mugabe must surely go, yet the only likely challenge to his autocratic rule is from either inside his own Zanu-PF movement or from the Police and Army when the time comes when there simply is no longer the money available to pay them.

Mugabe's neighbour and old ally from the anti-colonial struggles, South Africa, has been shamefully silent on the plight of its northern neighbour despite the repercusions a collapsing Zimbabwe would have upon it. South African President Thabo Mbeki's cowardly and frankly puzzling reluctance to confront Mugabe has only acted in prolonging the suffering still further for the ordinary people of Zimbabwe.

Time Wasting Score: (5)





The scores given obviously aren't to be taken too seriously, those above and many others should probably all receive '5', and in an ideal world removed from power and replaced by more enlightened leaders as soon as humanly possible.

However, there are many more leaders in Africa, other parts of the developing world, and indeed the developed world that should also merit a mention in this article. Corruption, non-adherance to Human Rights and interference in the democratic process are not, sadly, limited to the cases mentioned above or, indeed the Developing World. It must also be stressed that the reasons why certain countries are blighted by such leaders and governments are very complex.

Yet it remains deeply disturbing to many (not least of course those who live in the affected countries) that such corrupt, ignorant, stubborn and frankly evil men remain in positions of unchallenged power in 2007. Whats more, that they act as a bar on the long overdue hopes of peace, fairness and prosperety of their peoples. They and others are, in short, clearly 'Time Wasters' in the way of development.

Links & Resources:

The World's Top 20 Dictators - Parade.com's annual look at the World's worst misusers of power.

darfurgenocide.org - Website of US based Darfur pressure group

Sudan Watch - Useful Blog resource for independent news from Sudan

This is Zimbabwe - Blog of the Sokwanele - Zvakwana ('Enough is Enough') Civic action group, detailing daily events from within Zimbabwe

Blogging by Dan

born survivor

Having braved the Alps last week, this week survival-ninja Bear Grylls was stalking purposefully - and murderously - through the swamps of the Everglade forest in Florida in his frequently hilarious 'Born Survivor' programme. He's a pretty tough guy and, completely isolated in this most dangerous of habitats he's forced to confront the local nature by engaging in hand-to-hand combat with, er, some minnows, a handful of insect grubs, a baby frog and a football-shaped turtle. Oh, and he runs away from some alligators and snakes, too, screeching "we're too close! we're too close!", and once, memorably, climbs a tree because he sees some bubbles in the water.

When it comes to survival techniques, mind, Bear is pretty good. Lost in the forest, he needs to find higher ground. but he has a solution. He ties his shoelaces together and shins up a tree. "I'll be able to get a glimpse of some pine trees," he tells us, which is good "because they grow on dry ground". He gets to the top, and shins back dejected. That didn't work. Oh, right.

Bear is a man who wears a constant expression of furrow-browed concentration, telling us that he is in danger every time he hears the breeze rustling through the trees, and adding on a stern, anxious commentary. "The swamps are so forbidding. Anything could be lurking in the water", he tells us, wading past some crisp packets and a shopping trolley (for budget reasons the episode was filmed in the stream behind waitrose in Chichester). I jest of course, and Bear is doubtless in a pretty hairy situation, but it's hard to take his narrative seriously when his cameraman is uncomplainingly willing to wade through alligator-infested waters without mentioning his rapidly-beating heart every ten seconds.

Bear reminds me of someone, as I watch, but I can't remember who. Afterwards, it comes to me - remember Damien, Stephen Tompkinson's character from 'Drop The Dead Donkey'? The investigative journalist, always keen to dress up in army fatigues and more intent on looking tough than being journalistically accurate. I'm not saying that Bear fakes anything, but he has that same sense of machismo. In one scene he knifes a turtle (is that really necessary? I don't see why he can't just explain that they're a good source of food rather than kill one of the little buggers) and appears subsequently with his t-shirt drenched in blood. You can't help wondering if he thought the blood might not look pretty damn good on camera.

I think I'll remember the bit where he eats the tiny cute little tree-frog, meanwhile, for the rest of my life. But at least if I'm ever stranded in a swampy forest, I'll have some idea what to do. So thanks for that, Bear Grylls.

HANG ON A MINUTE! No, actually, not thanks to you Mr. Grylls. Thanks to Kris Thoemke, instead. Who is Kris Thoemke, you may ask? Well, I'll reproduce the first two lines of the credits for you, and that may answer your question.

Presented by
BEAR GRYLLS

Survival Expert
KRIS THOEMKE

!!!!!!

Friday, March 16, 2007

no shortage of sand

Two extracts from the latest, typically brilliant, post on Simon Munnery's blog. As funny as you'd expect, and thought provoking too.

1) "There's something about the recycling symbol; those three green arrows chasing each others tails; I had a vision of a vast rally, with thousands saluting and huge banners sporting the symbol and a word by each of the arrows - Create! Destroy! Transport! The insanity of it. Take the recycling of bottles for example; these must be left in special baskets outside your house from where they are collected by a van - using fuel - driven to a central location - perhaps Peru, if the whims of the economy so dictate - where they are smashed and melted - using more fuel - before being recast into bottles and then transported again - using fuel - and then they burn some extra fuel just for a laugh. And why recycle glass anyway? There's no shortage of sand. Recycle? Reuse surely, like we used to a hundred years ago. The symbol itself is a lie; it implies some perfect cycle; infinitely repeatable - but every stage of the process uses fuel; a spiral would be more accurate; but that would attract few followers."

2) "Countries such as North Korea are oft condemned for being 'one party states'. But is that so much worse than the USA which as far as I can see is a two party state - with those two parties more or less exactly the same; large corporations funding both. Still at least you get the illusion of choice, which is better than nothing I suppose."

Thursday, March 15, 2007

the barber of seville

I've blogged before about the awkwardness of barbershop conversations. This time, sat waiting for my turn, I realised there'd be no escaping - there were three hairdressers, two women, broad and warm brummies, and a young Irish boy with a straightened mullet. They were putting on a real performance for their customers. I subtly eyed them, hoping I got the boy, who seemed a little quieter, and not the louder of the two woman who it seemed to me was talking so much - each word requiring the appopriate gesticulation - that she hardly ever seemed to be cutting hair, and the louder she got the more likely I considered it that she would put the client's eye out. She finished first and called me over.

"Just a trim, please", I said, sitting down. "Shorter at the back and tidy up the sides. You can pretty much leave the top as it is".
"So what do you", she said, ignoring me, "think about, y'know, supernatural stuff - do you believe in it?"
She didn't wait for me to answer.
"Kathy" - she pointed at her colleague, "says that if you leave your front gate open you're actually inviting evil spirits in!".

I started to reply, but she continued. "Kathy, is it your front gate or your back gate? Only I haven't got a front gate!"
"It's the front gate, I think", Kathy called over, "but I think either works".

"Leave both open and maybe the evil spirits will just pass straight through", I suggested.
"So. What do you want?", she asked. "Just a trim?".

"I'm a bit psychic, though", she explained, once she'd started a little casual cutting.
"Hmm-mm", I half-replied.
"There are some things I just know. I dreamed that Ellie - she works at the other shop - was really fat. And then a week later she told me she was pregnant. You do get some weird co-incidences, don't you? How else would you explain them?"
"Well, we think about other people all the time, don't we", I replied. "It would be a bit strange if there were never any coincidences at all. Sooner or later you'll happen to be thinking about someone who will happen to call you a moment letter. But that's bound to happen occasionally. It doesn't have to be paranormal".

She pointed the sharpened point of the scissors at me, threateningly. "My little brother is 14, right, and I found out that he's been messing around with a ouija board! I told him, you're mad, don't you ever do that again! You're messing with forces way beyond your control".
"When I used to play with a ouija board with my friends", I told her, "we all denied moving the coin around ourselves. Much later I asked a couple of my friends whether either of them had actually moved it. Oh yes, they both said. I'd moved it too. We still allowed ourselves to get scared though".

"A gypsy woman came in here a while ago. And I could tell that she couldn't read me. But then my mum told me that there's gypsy blood in me. Romany gypsy, apparently. Are they the ones with the crystal balls and headscarves?", she asked.
"Yes, I think so".
"So where would that be from?"
"Eastern European I suppose. Is it not just Romania?".
She shrugged, excited. "Maybe it is, yeah. Romany gypsy".

This was the best one.

"You do get poltergeists too, don't you", she said.
I looked non-commital.
"Once I was having dinner with my mum and dad, and my stereo suddenly came on upstairs, all on its own. I just heard this strange noise, this weird sound followed by a bassline - dur dur dur dur dur dur dur dur dur dur dur dur DUR DUR DUR. 'I Wanna Be Adored' by the Stone Roses. Trying to speak to me, see. Cause that's not the first song on that album is it?"
Yes, it is.

"No", I said, "I don't think so".
"Exactly".
"At least your poltergeist has good taste", I offered.
"That's exactly what I said".

The haircut cost eleven pounds and I left a big tip - amazing value.

i just decided i don't trust you any more

"The tender caresses that bring out the man.
I can't still be drunk at five.
Oh, I guess I surely can.
Slowly your beauty is eaten away,
By the scent of someone else in the blanket where we lay"


I absolutely adore The Wedding Present, one of the the best bands Britain has produced; from shimmering C86 indie to the carnage-pop of the Albini years, they've been resolutely singular, bitter and brilliant. Dave Gedge remains one of pop's great frontmen, an awkward, dour romantic with a reedy voice and an amazing ability to write heartfelt, direct lyrics. Like The Fall, they're too monochrome for some, but I love that consistency and single-mindedness of purpose. Every song surfs this incredibly poignant wave of heartbreak and jealousy, underpinned by double-speed guitar savagery. Amazing band. Anyway, you can now purchase their entire Peel Sessions in a 6 CD boxset - 94 near-identical songs for £27. Bargain of the year.

Get it from Amazon from the end of the month. And how many male indie-rockers would write stuff like this?

"And is it sexist to say
that I thought just boys were meant to behave in this way?
You seemed quite sincere.
Will you even recognise my face this time next year?

And yes there was one particular glance
that made me afraid
That you were just seeing me as a chance
of getting laid".

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

the green man

The Green Man festival in Wales is looking increasingly tempting this year - first off the destination, set in the lovely national park in the Brecon Beacons, amidst the sugar-loaf mountains, in the temperate heights of late August, is dead appealing. Secondly, the line-up is looking increasingly good - Vashti Bunyan, Gruff Rhys, Smog, Joanna Newsom, Robert Plant and, best of all, a headline set from the wonderful Steve Malkmus. Seriously thinking of going to this so let me know if you wanna come!

In the meantime, feast your heart on this set of new Malkmus material - nine new songs tried out and tested in Portland in January. Amazing stuff.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

foie gras and trident

The brutal procedure by which foie gras is produced is, frankly, too disgusting for me to want to outline on my blog, so I'll spare you the bullet points and youtube video; but suffice it to say it's viciously disgusting and - apologies to friends of mine who have eaten it - one of those useful signifiers you learn about someone. (oh, you stamp on spiders? oh, you pull the wings off butterflies? oh, you believe in hitting children? oh, you eat foie gras?).

If you can stomach it, watch the videos here and tell me it ain't so - utterly vile.

Click here to petition the prime minister to ban foie gras; it's already been outlawed in Poland, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Israel, and it's time we did the same. (hat tip to Andrew Brown for directing me to this)

While you're at it, you might want to petition the prime minister to stand up for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the same time, by not signing up to renewing Trident. Alternatively, just check this list of MPs who have signed the early day motion asking for more time to debate the matter. If your MP's name is not on it, make sure you vote for someone else in the next election.

Friday, March 09, 2007

last leg of the midlands tour.

I end up pleasently surprised to have dissappointed myself. Here's a suggestion for those who need, but fear, therapy: go away on your own. Somehow it's come to pass that I'm sitting in a tiny, cluttered half empty bar in the medieval part of Coventry, listening to Philip Glass and the Penguin Cafe Ochestra on this most improbable of pub stereos. Here's how this accident happened.

I've done more and more work-based travel in recent months, pitching up in Sheffield, Exeter, Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton, London and Leeds. I have no consistent approach, sometimes treating it as a holiday and finding nice restaurants and bars, other times treating it as work, staying in my hotel in the evenings and dozing to hotel TV. This time I've been quite proactive, perhaps because I've had productive days, improving my mood, or perhaps because the weather has been nice and has upped my energy, but either way I've been out most evenings this week trying to find nice places to eat and gigs to go to. After LCD Soundsystem in Birmingham on Wednesday, I decided to find a gig in Coventry tonight, wanting to have some activity for the evening. So I found a promising looking gig at a venue called The Tin Angel and, having dashed out for a curry after I finished my days' appointments and checked in to my hotel, weaved my way uncertainly through unfamiliar streets and dank rain, before I finally found the pub, dark and near deserted.

No sign of the gig, precious little sign of life, but I decided to stop and have a beer anyway, and now, writing this, this strange exotic little pub is throbbing unexpectedly with the bass heavy sounds of Ethopian Jazz. A regular asks the barman questions like "what crazy music do you have for us this evening, then?". I even notice a guitar sitting unplayed in the corner - perhaps the gig will happen, I speculate, in some really strange, undemonstrative fashion, before the few of us seated here. The bar is now unattended, for the bar staff have come to sit at tables, doing their fine art coursework. Perhaps the gig is downstairs, I wonder? Or upstairs, and I have no idea it's going on?

Wanting a lively evening originally, I'm disappointed in failing to find it, but actually, I don't care, and far from feeling restless or lonely I feel a flickering wave of happiness. I watch the rain smashing the streets and nurse my beer, lurching with the jazz and think "I am happy here wrapped in my own skin".

Here the only distractions are too unlikely and ellusive to be felt. Sometimes only total seperation will suffice, where nothing is usual and everything foreign, so although I have no book to read, no-one to talk to, no desire to drink any more, I order another beer and write this on the back of a flyer, wondering if I can remember the way back to my hotel. The barman switches to Balkan gyspy music, the bargirl frowns over her heavy art book.

Actually, I really don't think I know the way back to my hotel. If I post this, though, you'll know I got back safe.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

ambushed by god

Having finished my day's duties at Warwick University today, I did the sensible thing and held off heading back into Coventry and went to the student union bar for a couple of pints. Perhaps I am vainly trying to recalibrate wasted days of my youth, but I like hanging around students, watching them and calculating the differences between us. Today, I wanted only to drink my pint and read my book but sitting down, I felt strangely lonely - one of those moments where you just want company. Happily, company swiftly arrived courtesy of two extremely nice young men who wanted to canvass my opinion for a survey on belief they were carrying out. It turned out, of course, that they were representatives of the Warwick University Christian Students society, and what began as a ten question survey swiftly became a theological debate (or as close to that high-falutin' concept as we were capable of getting).

The first thing that struck me, besides the obvious youth and impeccable politeness of the pair, was the extent to which I have changed over the years. I've gone from 'god squad' stereotyping to establishing a rather keen interest in the pull of religion, and while every question they asked was met with a determinedly secular answer, I felt a lot of sympathy for their (ultimately fruitless) quest to establish jesus as the son of god, and a personal liking for them too. But what a strange approach they took! The irony is that all the major religions, despite their (often historical) flaws, contain a tremendous amount of valuable, extensive and emotive writing on subjects that are dear to the heart of every good humanist or socialist. A young Christian might move mountains by talking up alms for the poor, charity, loving thy neighbour, social justice and tolerance - but instead I was dumbstruck to find the conversation dominated by obsessive adherence to the (dubious) notion of truth.

Do you accept Jesus as the sun of God? If not, are you saying he was a liar?

What a depressingly literal translation of one of the outstanding stories of man. Heaven, damnation and punishment, rather than the simple worth of doing good, were the watchwords for a belief system which appeared obsessive, unyielding and largely irrelevant. Here's a question - "what are we here for?" I would have bet that any Christian would say 'to do good', but my encounter with these two charming, intelligent - and good - Christians left me feeling deflated, depressingly unable to confirm that. Rather, they intimated, we are here for God, to recognise God, to give praise to god. What a shocking waste of a belief system with real value.

It's funny feeling old - I hope I didn't patronise them, but how easy it is to tease the devout and the youthful. True morality, true devotion, should be oriented towards the good of man not the promise of heaven. Moving on, I asked - glibly - what they thought of abortion and homosexuality. Their answers made me want to shake them, drag them into adulthood - I'm left with a frustrating question. Will two handsome, clever, well-meaning young men grow up into tolerant, open-minded grown-ups, or will they become zealots, unconcerned with the fate of humans on earth?

I liked them both very much, so I hope it's not the latter.

live in birmingham

I saw LCD Soundsystem and Prinzhorn Dance School, who recently signed to DFA, at Birmingham's Carling Academy last night; impressed with both but overwhelmed by neither; Prinzhorn played much the same set they played at last year's Great Escape festival, although they mystifyingly elected not to play their strongest, set-closing song, which blew me away when I first heard it. It's all the odder because without it the stripped down PDS aesthetic, all sudden snare and symbal crashes, awkward bass and snippets of repetitive guitar, sounds curiously limiting; occasionally moments open up where you suddenly hope for surprising diversions, but that doesn't fit with what they're trying to do, so although it's a consistent and coherent set, it feels like the rigidity of the template is suppressing the quality of the idea - one song, (sorry, I don't know any titles) which references monsters, contains the most beautifully slanted (and enchanted) guitar solo, pointed and abrupt. Another cries for a lead break that lets rip, but Prinzhorn are too controlled for that - a pity. Anyway, plenty of menacing stage presence, some hilarious lyrics, and a few marvellous songs bode well for the future.

LCD Soundystem, by contrast, seemed anything but lean for the first two - dreadful - songs of their set, but it was the first night of their first tour for a few years, and they seemed to swiftly take control and moderate their pace, eradicating the rustiness which characterised the start of their set, although the guitars frequently drowned out the bass. James Murphy is a pleasingly chubby frontman, unleashing sardonic rants and enthusiastic falsettos by turn, frequently breaking off to thwack the inevitable cowbell. Their songs lurch between Fall-like punk ('Daft Punk is Playing at My House' was one of the victims of early-set nerves, alas, but 'Movement' was one of the best songs of the night) and extensive dance workouts, where the band clearly lack the finesse and camaraderie of the (much better live) !!!, and yet still climb to impressive heights on a number of occasions. One new song is swept along by a synopated bass-line and gorgeous New Order keyboards, and 'Yeah Yeah Yeah' is ten or twelve minutes of bliss, recalling the delirious, hedonistic rush of the Happy Mondays. By the next song, however, they're below parr and this is the story of the set - they're clearly out of practise, and need to sequence the songs better. There's no excuse for not playing 'Losing My Edge', either. Try and catch them at one of the later dates on the tour, perhaps.

All told, a great evening - and the first time I've been on the guest-list for a gig in about ten years. Having a plus-one but no-one to go with, I plucked a sullen-looking teenage emo-girl from the queue and escorted her in, and then darted away when I realised this generous gesture looked alarmingly to the rest of the queue like the action of a sexual predator. Bah.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

fizzy beer

I am posting this purely for novelty value, and because Dan keeps asking to look at it on my mobile phone; he is very easily impressed. For the rest of you, this short video clip is interesting because although it is ostensibly just me, Vic, Dan and Dave in the pub, we have, er, very fizzy glasses of beer. Look at them fizz. Whee. Sorry it's got no sound, so you can't hear us talking shit.
More high-brow blogging soon.

the kindness of strangers

When I was younger, prone to introverted reflection and angst, I would often reflect on missed opportunities. In fact, I thought about missed opportunities a great deal. They were usually to do with girls, the failure to follow up on a glance or a drunken conversation, or a night spent chastely with a near-stranger thinking there would be plenty of time for all that later when it never came to pass. But not just that, sometimes it would be trips to pubs or visits to the school library, when you would trade grateful smiles with someone else nearby who knew enough to be on your side - sides being very important to a teenager. One particular time - I think I recall telling Dan this a while ago - I remember being 16 or so, circling and looking for a seat and then being beckoned to a table in a crowded Burger King (other fast food restaurants are available) by a beautiful girl happy to share her table with me. I panicked and rushed backwards, claiming a recently vacated table and then feeling too sick to eat. A missed opportunity. This is the kind of thing I would turn over in my mind.

These days, of course, I am rather better adjusted and not so keen for the approval of strangers, but I still know the feeling sometimes. I'm writing this from my hotel room in Birmingham, and having had dinner out I called into a nearby pub fancying a pint and happy to read my book uninterrupted. But I sat next to the quiz machine and almost immediately a trio of youngish brummies, probably students, gathered around it, shouting and swearing and really quite obviously failing to win. Once or twice the girl, noticing me sitting nearby, said 'ask him!', but both times her companions reached over to claim an answer, making the approach unncecessary. Each one in turn traded a smile with me, and I sat, putting my book down, finding a phrase forming on my lips, something like "oh, it's really hard watching people do a quiz without joining in", or - at a moment when they were fumbling for a ten pence piece - "I've got one". But on each occasion I held back, not for the same reasons I did so when I was a nervous teenager (for fear of rejection) but just because I easily imagined another, better moment to say hello to these nice, similar people who were drinking beside me. And then, of course, the opportunities disappeared, and they retreated from the machine and then from the pub. I was left wondering how my evening would have been altered had I bitten the bullet and said hello; not envious, but wondering at an opportunity I'd failed to take. For a second I was seventeen again, it was strange.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

me in black and white

Ooh, look, I'm passing a bit of time in an apple store in birmingham - and there's a little gadget that lets me take photos of myself. Let's do that then. Here I am.

Patches of mercy In The Country Of Men

"I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay still and brilliant beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of eveything".
In The Country Of Men by Hisham Matar is that wonderful thing, a short book of such tender simplicity that it almost conceals its emotional pull until the end, where I found myself suppressing sobs on the train to Birmingham. It's a book about many things: childhood, politics, friendship, betrayal, fear, and - chiefly - love, but it is also a pleasingly direct read, told through the eyes of a nine year old child growing up in Gaddafi's brutal Libya and finding the security of his world thrust apart by forces which he cannot understand. Matar is strong on the confusion of approaching adolescence, and remarkable on loyalty. Young Slooma, the book's protagonist, is helpless but suffused with love for his parents and his friends - and yet as the Revolutionary Committee close in on his activist father, he is unable to discern which way to turn, giving away good men with small mistakes and rashly tearing at the necessarily taut threads of friendship which exist between the children of Mulberry Street, the children of traitors, government officials and spies. Matar writes:

"By rushing to my rescue Sharief had split the sea, created an undertow which would pull me even further away from Kareem. We drift through allegiances, those we are born into and those we are claimed by, always estranging ourselves".
Finally estranged from all that he knows, Slooma is ultimately exiled, and it is through the nostalgic eyes of the exile that Tripoli is so delicately and sensually drawn; evocative descriptions of the turquoise sea and dusty streets seem somehow all to be seen at a remove, dreamlike and shivering in the sun, never as real as the vividly abrupt moments of terror, the maleavolent spies and intercepted phone calls, the welt marks criss-crossed across his father's back, although even in these nightmarish visions Matar's eye is needle-eye keen, describing an activist pleading with his executioner as he is pulled towards the gallows:

"He reminded me of the way a shy woman would resist her friends' invitation to dance, pulling her shoulders up to her ears and waving her index finger nervously in front of her mouth".
When the grisly job is done, his fathers' friend hanged in front of a crowd and televised, Slooma surveys the aftermath with a child's unknowing comprehension - the crowd dance around the corpse, pulling its' legs, and for Slooma they seem to look "like children satisfied with a swing they had just made". Not long after, his father is returned, having betrayed his comrades, and his son is forced to come to terms with two lifelong symbols of his shame: a perpetual feeling, "a kind of quiet panic, as if any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my feet", and another "distant reverberation [...] I often find a shameful pleasure in submitting to authority". And, in exile, there are other repurcussions.

"I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. I am both surprised and repulsed, for example, by my exagerrated sentiment when parting with people I am not intimate with, promising impossible reunions."
It is the family he loves which Slooma, finally sent away, can not know, and this knowledge permeates the text; it is a treatise on remembered (so never entirely lost) love - love which overcomes everything - principles, duties and loyalties. This faith in love, love between family members and love for one's homeland, means that even where the book ripples uncomfortably with the darkest of secrets - for it is also the tale of his mother's childhood, given away and abandoned likewise, not to exile but to an unmet husband - it retains an idealistic and melancholy optimism. The final few pages are amongst the most moving I've read. In The Country Of Men is a quiet, humane work of genius.

Monday, March 05, 2007

world-wrecking technology

Really, is there anyone out there who can read Charlie Brooker's rant about mobile phones in today's paper without a laugh of recognition? Hilarious - and true - stuff.

"It is lumbered with a bewildering array of unnecessary "features" aimed at idiots, including a mode that scans each text message and turns some of the words into tiny animations, so if someone texts to say they have just run over your child in their car, the word "car" is replaced by a wacky cartoon vehicle putt-putting onto the screen. There is also a crap built-in game in which you play a rabbit ("Step into the role of Bobby Carrot - the new star of cute, mind-cracking carrot action!").

When you dial a number, you have a choice of seeing said number in a gigantic, ghastly typeface, or watching it moronically scribbled on parchment by an animated quill. I can't find an option to see it in small, uniform numbers. The whole thing is the visual equivalent of a moronic clip-art jumble sale poster designed in the dark by a myopic divorcee experiencing a freak biorhythmic high. Worst of all, it seems to have an unmarked omnipresent shortcut to Orange's internet service, which means that whether you are confused by the menu, or the typeface, or the user- confounding buttons, you are never more than one click away from accidentally plunging into an overpriced galaxy of idiocy, which, rather than politely restricting itself to news headlines and train timetables, thunders "BUFF OR ROUGH? GET VOTING!" and starts hurling cameraphone snaps of "babes and hunks" in their underwear at you, presumably because some pin-brained coven of marketing gonks discovered the average Orange internet user was teenage and incredibly stupid, so they set about mercilessly tailoring all their "content" toward priapic halfwits, thereby assuring no one outside this slim demographic will ever use their gaudy, insulting service ever again. And then they probably reached across the table and high-fived each other for skilfully delivering "targeted content" or something, even though what they should really have done, if there was any justice in the world, is smash the desk to pieces, select the longest wooden splinters they could find, then drive them firmly into their imbecilic, atrophied, world-wrecking rodent brains."

more south africa photos

Another batch of photos from Michi's trip to South Africa - more great shots, including a photo of the traveller herself. The first shot is the 3 year olds class, the second Michi and Morena, and the third is a great photograph down a tunnel, occupied by various kids including Tsepo. The fourth photo is of Mimi and the son of one of the Topsy carers, and the fifth seems to feature a sullen youth on face-painting day. Trust Michi to introduce some bright colours into proceedings...

Excellent photos, so thanks again Michi!

Friday, March 02, 2007

the refugees of iraq

With the number of Iraqis being slain by sectarian infighting rising to catastrophic proportions, and with 1.6m displaced within Iraq's boundaries, it can be easy to dismiss the further 1.8 million who have successfully fled from Iraq and found refuge in neighbouring countries as 'the lucky ones'. In a sense, they are. Yet the consequences of the catastrophic war in Iraq go beyond the internal tragedies and the diplomatic tensions between East and West which have followed. They threaten to upset the balance of the middle East and undermine the stability of the more secure countries in the region.

Two countries, Syria and Jordan, have done the most to alleviate the terrific burdens of the displaced Iraqis. With figures on the rise daily (an estimated 40,000 Iraqis are crossing the border into Syria every month) the statistics are unbelievable. There are over 700,000 refugees in Jordan, upwards of 600,000 in Syria, 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran and between 20 and 40,000 in Lebanon. For a country such as Jordan such an intake is quite breathtaking, especially when it is taken into account that these are cautious statistics. To put that in context, for a country with a population of only 5.6 million, taking on that many refugees means that the thousands of Iraqi men, women and children there now number more than ten percent of the population, which is the equivalent of over 30 million people arriving on America's shores.

Jordan's remarkable tolerance is a great compliment to the society. But it would be a grave mistake to mistake such tolerance for the answer to the question of what to do with the fleeing Iraqis. Despite the influx, Jordan is being forced to change its policies. Initially, Jordan indicated that it would close its borders, but in practice throughout 2003 and 2004 it allowed Iraqis to enter on 30 day tourist visas and looked the other way when the return date passed and the refugees remained. However, by November 2005, in a country already experiencing problems with Islamism, crisis point was swiftly reached - three Iraqi nationals killed 60 people by setting off bombs in major hotels in the capital, Amman. Since then, Jordan has ratcheted up its immigration enforcement, barring entry to Iraqi men aged between 18 and 35. Young men trapped, as Ted Kennedy noted, in a cauldron of violence.

The situation for Iraqis in Jordan is not helped by the Jordanian policy of recognising them not as refugees but rather as tourists and temporary visitors. They are not recognised as de facto refugees (which Human Rights Watch defines as "people who have fled conditions of generalized violence and persecution, who are in need of international protection and who face objective conditions of danger in their own country") and thus are given what Bill Frelick, author of a 106 page report on the plight of Iraqi refugees, describes as 'the silent treatment'. They are not deported, but they swiftly lose legal status and any protection or assistance that might go with it. Unlike Iranian and Palestinian refugees, however, they are not restricted in their movement.

Of course, the financial implications of taking on this enormous influx are severe. Ian Black, who suspects that there are as many as a million Iraqis in Jordan, notes that "With high unemployment and 14% of Jordanians living in poverty, recent fuel and other price rises have been painful. The cost of housing in Amman has doubled or tripled in the last year alone". Although many new arrivals are Ba'athists officials or representatives of the Iraqi professional class, many refugees are living in drastic poverty, without education or health care, and facing up to a new position of social outcasts in a society which once looked up to Iraqis.

Jordanians and Syrians - and their neighbours, near and far - have other reasons for concern. Kenneth Pollack and Daniel Byman of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy point out that "all too often, where large numbers of refugees go, instability and war closely follows". In their article 'Iraqi Refugees: Carriers of Conflict', they point to the experience of countries who have taken in large numbers of Palestinian refugees - after all, the Palestinian question has contributed to conflicts in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Similar consequences have occurred elsewhere where large numbers of refugees have sought resettlement. The fall of the Zairean ruler Mobuto Sese Seko, for instance, Pollack and Byman say, "and the subsequent civil war in Zaire, which claimed roughly 4 million lives, can be traced directly to the arrival of Rwandan refugees in 1994. Refugees have a knack for upsetting the status quo". As a country where the Sunni majority has always lived happily with its Christian minority, Jordanians and students of Middle Eastern politics are naturally concerned that if Sectarian politics are imported as well as Iraqi nationals, this delicate balance might be upset, with tragic consequences.

Katherine Newland, director of the Michigan Policy Institute, is blunt in her assessment:

"There's just no way a small country like Jordan can, unaided, absorb hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees".

Historically, despite the well deserved reputation for hospitality which countries in the Middle East have earned, it is America which has done the most for refugees. After Vietnam the US admitted over 1.4 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, and the US has been similarly generous in providing a new home for Nicaraguans, Cubans, Iranians and Hungarians. Since 1976, it has admitted 2.66 million refugees - a dazzling number. In the post 9/11 world the US is understandably hesitant about admitting refugees who might engage in terrorist activities, and yet, as Senator Ted Kennedy has indicated, their admittance of Iraqis has been shockingly minimal. Writing for the Washington Post last month, Kennedy pointed out that:

"There is an overwhelming need for temporary relief and permanent resettlement. Last year, however, America accepted only 202 Iraqi refugees, and next year we plan to accept approximately the same number. We and other nations of the world need to do far better".

It is essential that Jordan and Syria do not close their borders and condemn displaced Iraqis to further violence. It is unreasonable, however, to assume that they alone can mop up the consequences of this tragic war. The West bears a great responsibility for the violence and escalating civil strife in Iraq, and must do its share to help.

"Failure to act quickly and co-operatively with other nations will only result", Kennedy writes, "in more carnage, chaos and instability in the region".

originally written for Hii Dunia, and trailed here previously.