Friday, April 30, 2010

Polls Apart

Britain elects a new Government next Thursday. Unfortunately, this fact seems to have escaped the media in this country. They seem to be harbouring under the illusion that we're electing a President, not a Prime Minister, and the party he belongs to and the policies he stands for are incidental. What matters is how the candidates look, that they avoid mistakes, and what they say is snappy and memorable enough to play well in short packages on the news and bounce them up in that night's opinion poll.

Of course, complaining that modern politics has got too presidential, that we're voting for personalities and not policies, is nothing new. It's happened during every election campaign I've experienced. Yet in this one it has been more exaggerated than ever, simply because, in a direct crib from the US, the three main candidates have taken part in three separate televised debates. These set pieces have dominated the campaign, allowing even less room than before (and the room was so small you had to go outside to change your mind) for any discussion of the parties' respective policies. They have set the narrative and sucked the whole life from the rest of the campaign.

I have to admit to not watching a single one, partly because of better things to do, partly because I believe they would be extremely depressing. What I have read and seen after each debate  has only increased my resolve to miss the next one. Instant polls taken from 20 people sat in a room eating crisps somewhere declaring who 'won', an instant judgement that is then seemingly cast in stone (has anyone ever met anyone who has taken part in one of these polls? Me neither. Where do they find them?); reams of articles judging each of the candidates as if they were auditioning on X-Factor, assessing the way they looked, their body language, the manner of their delivery; rentagob politicos declaring to any camera they can find that their man won hands down and the others were terrible, even if their man picked his nose and ate it and then bared his backside to camera during his closing speech.

All of this has been tough on the oldest and, well, ugliest candidate, the incumbent Gordon Brown. Regardless of what you think of him as a politician or his policies, to submit him to a glorified beauty contest is tantamount to cruelty. Brown is rough-hewn - he has a reputation for being grumpy and looks it, but then he is blind in one eye from a childhood illness, which also left one side of his face slightly paralysed. He possesses an horrible rictus smile which simply oozes insincerity. He has little or no charm when it comes to dealing with the common man or woman. In probably the most defining moment of the campaign so far, while pressing flesh in the North of England, he encountered an elderly woman who used to vote Labour, the party Brown leads, but, like many other followers, is a bit fed up after 13 years of sucking up to the rich and wideboy Texans in the White House, as well as other gripes. She harangued him and Gordon, while looking as comfortable as a Hippopotamus in a power shower, took his medicine, and tried to assuage her concerns, despite one of these being an illogical and pretty nasty rant at the amount of immigrants 'flocking' into the country. The last bit shocked Brown, who also has a hearing problem. Let's just say he thought she said something stronger than 'flocking immigrants.'

He got into his car. This is where it got a bit gruesome. He was wearing a radio mic and forgot to turn it off. He harrumphed that his encounter had been a disaster. Someone asked why and he said the woman was 'bigoted.' Had the mic belonged to the BBC then the conversation would never have left the car, as Beeb rules forbid it broadcasting anything picked up in private on one of its mics. But it didn't. It belonged to Sky News. Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch, also owner of lovely 'Fair and Balanced' Fox news. I think you can guess what happened next. The conversation relayed to the world, howls of outrage from the Conservative press,  and a penitent Brown dragged back to apologise to the old dear, while 'Bigot-gate' rumbled on an on. The press are still camped outside the poor woman's front door, while tabloids have offered countless thousands to hear her slay the Prime Minister. So far the bidding has reached £50,000, led by The Sun (proprietor: R. Murdoch) but she admirably shows no sign of caving in. I'm told it's a matter of time, however.

Apparently Brown tried to make a joke of it in last night's final debate, but he does humour like Edward Scissorhands does banjo. The leader of the Conservatives and Prime Minister in waiting (and darling of Sky News and The Times, proprietor R. get the picture), David Cameron, was adjudged to have won by those watching on TV. Before you could say 'Nixon!', a poll emerged from those who had been listening on radio. They gave it to Brown. Needless to say the press ignored the radio poll and led with the TV verdict, just like The Sun ignored a survey performed by its own pollsters which declared that 'Bigot-gate' had no influence over how they would vote, and instead proclaimed that the 'gaffe' (newspaper-speak for a balls-up) ensured the Prime Minister was 'Brown Toast'. Finished, for those who don't speak excruciating pun-ese.

The debates have had one positive effect, however. For decades the British parliamentary system has been dominated by Labour and Conservatives. The third party, the Liberal Democrats, have barely had a look-in, hindered by a ludicrous, unrepresentative first-past-the-post voting system that rewarded them with comparatively few seats given their share of the vote, and awards control of the country to a party for whom almost two-thirds of the population haven't voted for. The coverage of politics reflects this. Plenty of yah-boo sucks between the two main parties, interspersed with a few vaguely patronising mentions of the Libdems, as they are known. During the first debate, voters, who are fed up and bored of two parties squabbling like kids, promising the earth in opposition, then letting them down in power, mired in sleaze and incompetence, in hoc to the rich, keen to send troops to die for reasons spurious, saw the Libdem leader Nick Clegg, young, presentable, rising above the fray, and liked what they saw. He seemed new, fresh. He and his party shot up in the polls. They remain buoyant, in some lying second ahead of Labour, even if our barmy system will guarantee them less seats despite a larger share of the vote.

As I predicted in an earlier blog, the right-wing press trained their guns on Clegg and his party and fired both barrels. It seem to have had little effect, though there is still time for the drip-drip of false allegations to trickle down.  The likelihood is still a hung parliament, with no party in overall power. Polls show many people welcome this, forcing the parties to work together to solve our problems, rather than setting themselves in direct opposition. The price of Libdem support for whichever of the other two parties tries to form a coalition will be reform of our voting system, which, in my humble opinion, will have a transformatory effect on our politics. At last our vote will count. Mr Murdoch and his pals disagree. Coalition governements are anti-democratic, they say. Lots of smoke-filled rooms and shady haggling. The markets will go into meltdown. The last is trotted out with depressing regularity. Acknowledgement that democracy is a sham; that a group of unelected bankers and spivs decide the course of our politics, not the people.

Next Friday I'll be able to give you the result. I'm an Anyone-but-the-Conservatives voter. People appeared to have forgotten the royal mess they made during their last period of Government. People who are sick of needless wars seem willing to vote in a party who were even more in favour of those needless wars than the Government that took us into them. People who are sick of the greed of unelected bankers directly impinging on the wealth and welfare of us all are willing to vote in a party which is even deeper in the pockets of big business than any of their rivals. A party which claims to have changed, when all it has done to alter its nasty image is install a Tony Blair clone as leader, and keep quiet about any policies it my have lest it scares the voters, and focus entirely on style, coupled with a belief that after 13 years of Labour Government the voters will be ready for a change (a word Mr Cameron uses at least three times in every sentence. As the cliche goes, if voting changed anything, they'd ban it.)

Like Blair, Cameron is an oleaginous smoothie, all smarm and no substance. The fact he seems to believe in nothing is not an impediment. In fact, it's an asset. Principles are inconvenient things when faced with power. Neil Kinnock, former Labour leader, and a man who was pilloried by the Tory press for his ginger hair, his Welshness and his verbosity (The Welsh Windbag he became known) once famously said a few days before his defeat to Mrs Thatcher:  '[If Mrs Thatcher wins] I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.' Well, now televised leadership debates have arrived in the UK, I have a message for budding Prime Ministers. 'I warn you not to be ugly. I warn you not to be bald. I warn you not to be fat. I warn you not to be old.'


Dan - Friday

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sediba - Natural Spring

Earlier this month a team of scientists at the Institute for Human Evolution of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg announced an amazing discovery. It was nothing less than the holy grail of paleoanthropologists – the fossilized remains of a new species of hominid. Excitement spread through the expert community at once, but the discovery caught the imagination of the general public also. It’s not hard to understand why. Few prehistoric issues are more intriguing than our linage and where it branches from the great apes, our close genetic relatives. There is even some possibility that the new species – named Australopithecus sediba (Sediba is a natural spring in the Sotho language) - is a link between the previously known southern African Australopithecus specie - Australopithecus africanus – and Homo habilis or Homo erectus. In other words a connection between the two genera, one of which is our own.

Lee Berger with sediba
The first Australopithecus specimen was also discovered by a Wits professor. Raymond Dart wrote up his discovery of the so-called Taung Child in the journal Nature in 1925. Other discoveries followed first by Dart and then under the leadership of Dart’s successor, Professor Phillip Tobias. Several are from the same area where the new specimens where found. Pictures of Dart and Tobias, with friends, are below:

It seems that Australopithecus evolved some four million years ago in east Africa and spread over much of the continent. It is thought to have become extinct some 2 million years ago. Thus the age of the new specimens is a very important issue. Paul Dirks, then the head of the School of Geosciences at the university, was involved with the dating issues. They attacked the problem three ways. Various other fossil creatures were found in the same sediments; several of these are well-known as are their periods of existence. Next, the magnetic polarity reverses which took place in the geological past put the fossils between 1.78 and 1.95 million years of age. Finally uranium/lead dating puts them at around 2 million years. 2 million years mean that sediba lived in the same time frame as the homo species; possibly they were contemporaries. More controversially, Berger has suggested that humans may be descendents of sediba. Reaction to that has been mixed. Either way it is a branch of our tree which was unknown before.

The species had long ape-like arms, short hands and long legs which might have made it possible to run or walk like a human. Two more specimens have been discovered, preserved in a hard conglomerate of calcified clastic sediments, apparently deposited at the bottom of an underground lake nearly two million years ago.
Makapansgat where some earlier specimens of Australopithecus were discovered.

The New York Times featured Lee Berger and his young son, Matthew, with his dog, Tau, at the site, and delighted in the story of the boy picking up the first piece of fossilized clavicle bone. Tau means Lion in Setswana, which is the unofficial language of Botswana but also widely spoken in South Africa. Apparently the dog ran off and Matthew followed, returning with the fossil. It would have been an even better story if the bone had been dug up by Tau! The full story of that first discovery is at

What makes the discovery particularly remarkable is the location. The specimens were found at the Cradle of Mankind, a world heritage site where some of the Australopithecus africanus specimens were discovered. It is a rich collection of (now filled) caves which seems to have hosted a variety of species for millennia. Now it seems it hosted at least two different species of hominid over time.

The scientists have been working with the specimens, and finding additional ones, for eighteen months. I recall Paul Dirks telling me about a year ago that he was working on dating a marvelous fossil discovery at the Cradle. At the time we were discussing the use of certain geophysical techniques to try to find additional filled caves and promising sites in the area. In the end none of the high tech was necessary. It all came down to a boy and his dog.

Michael -Thursday

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Something old, ...

This time around I am going to take the easy way out - post an old essay I wrote for the Mystery Readers Journal in 2007 about writing crime fiction in relatively crime-free Iceland (please note that at the time I had no idea about our more than fair share of white collar crime). Apologies to anyone who has already read it, I promise to make up for it later by posting something so fresh it will still be kicking.

A mere 300.000 people live in Iceland. It therefore stands to reason that Icelandic crimes are relatively few and far between. This is a quite good state of affairs for the general public but extremely depressing for a crime writer, especially considering the fact that the few crimes committed are excruciatingly boring. There is seldom any question about the identity of the culprit as 99,9% of the population are not into serious crime, leaving the police 300 suspects to work from. Considering that half of these 300 people have already been incarcerated, police investigations are not a mammoth task in Iceland as they do not require a great sense of deduction, simply time. It is therefore quite a challenge to write a crime novel that takes place in my small country and yet manage to make it interesting and plausible. No one, least of all Icelanders, are willing to read a full length book about a murder which occurs in a kitchen following an argument between two drunken men – one of whom happens to pick up a butcher knife to emphasise his point. Particularly not when the murderer is apprehended by the police ten minutes later, still standing in the kitchen holding the murder weapon and wondering what the hell possessed him to do such a thing. As a result, the typical Icelandic murder as described is hard pressed to hold up even a short story. An Icelandic murder lacks motive and the murderer is never egged on by any evil impulses, merely stupidity and impaired judgement.

Of course there are some exceptions to the above. Two cases jump to mind, one of which involved a man that tried to kill his girlfriend by setting her on fire, only to have his plans foiled when his lighter did not work. The girlfriend, doused in gasoline, managed to escape while he was busy trying to coax a flame from the lighter and headed straight for the police station. He was charged and found guilty of assault as the judicial system considered it impossible to prove attempted murder. The other unusual case was the man who tried to make his suicide look like murder to collect insurance for his heirs. He went a bit overboard as he not only stabbed himself in the chest but also hit his own head repeatedly with an iron bar and cut his throat with large wire clippers from a construction site. Obviously this should have had the police scrambling to find the sadistic and brutal murderer on the loose if it were not for the stroke of genius that made the man lock his door from the inside so as not to be disturbed while attempting to take his own life. It should be noted that despite this unfortunate man’s obvious eagerness to depart this world he did not succeed – he was revived and remains amongst us, a bit scarred but none the worse for wear all things considered.

In addition to the lack of ingenuity common to most Icelandic criminals there are other factors that keep Icelandic crime uninteresting. To name one, the courts always pass the same sentence for murder no matter what the circumstances. This sentence is called a life sentence but is in actuality 16 years. It is unclear how the relationship between life and 16 years came about but is perhaps a remnant from the days when life expectancy was somewhat lower than in today’s society. Whatever the reason, no one holds their breath during murder trials and reporters can probably write their articles in full at the onset. Another factor is the investigation technique used by the police force to solve cases which involves gathering up the suspects, putting them in solitary confinement and waiting for them to confess. Given that they seem to have an unlimited time period for which to keep people locked up without charges this usually results in a confession. There is little or no CSI required as clues like cigarette butts and saliva droppings do not often enter the frame.

To be fair Iceland does have a special elite police unit called the Viking Squad. Members are allowed to carry guns, unlike regular policemen who are only armed with clubs. These men also get special training which focuses on making them adept at crawling on their stomach in ditches. To a layman this does not seem particularly up to date as the last ditch has long been removed from modern day Reykjavík but at least Icelanders can sleep soundly knowing that if a crime is ever committed in a ditch, the Viking Squad will certainly be prepared. As this has yet to occur, this elite force does not have much opportunity to justify its existence and the few times they are in the media it is usually because of some fiasco. One of their media highlights was when they were photographed standing ramrod straight, in bullet proof vests, backs against the wall, trying to coax out a dangerous criminal that has been observed welding a particularly menacing shotgun which turned out to be a vacuum cleaner nozzle held by an old lady cleaning her curtains. Another example is the attempted recovery of a body from the bottom of a nasty canyon which turned out to be a dummy used by the Icelandic rescue squad to practice rescuing people off the bottom of nasty canyons a year previously. It stands to reason that the staged rescue failed miserably since the rescue squad left the dummy behind. The Viking squad was unfortunately no better and the dummy still rests at the bottom of the nasty canyon.

All of this probably relates to Iceland’s history and our beloved Sagas, written at the time when there was no such thing as murder – merely killings. You killed someone and in turn his relatives killed you back. No big deal. No Viking Squad, no lawyers, no particular sentiments and certainly no attempts to conceal the act. One of the nation’s favourite characters from these ancient writings is Egill who first killed at the hardened age of four. The victim was one of his father’s workers and his father was upset seeing that good help was hard to come by even in the year 914. When admonished and asked why he did it the child replied that the man was so well positioned for a bludgeoning. This more often than not seems to be the motive or reason for modern Icelandic murders. Nothing ground shaking or earth shattering, just someone unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So one might ask, why bother writing, much less reading, about fictional crime set in Iceland? Despite everything described above this is not a difficult question to answer. Iceland has everything needed as a background for interesting murders and out of the ordinary drama, mercifully something criminals have yet to discover. It is a small society unlike any other, with quirky characters looming at every corner. It has landscape that just begs for creepy occurrences and allows for endless ways of getting rid of bodies or evidence – not to mention the abundance of possible, unusual ways to murder someone. Also, although not acted upon Icelandic society is brimming with motives - an abundance of money is (past tense would be more proper now) circulating, love and sex are all around, an irresponsible or what-me-worry attitude is general as is the belief in ghosts the occult, and the close connection and relevance of the past invites vendettas and related revenge. So writing about crime in Iceland is a bit like fishing in uncharted waters – you throw out your net of text and can be lucky with your catch by capturing the imagination of the reader or you can be unlucky and your story seems pretentious and downright silly. Whatever the outcome one always recites an unconscious prayer in the hope that the criminals don’t catch on as in real life boring crime is preferable to the fascinating.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, April 26, 2010

Country quiz - Where are you?

You walk into a shop and are expected to greet the shopkeeper, the assistant, and the dog?

The Metro’s on strike and the stranded passenger’s faces would express; anger, resignation, or no expression but a shrug and expelling air from pursed mouths?

A person you meet for the first time kisses you on both cheeks, converses for twenty minutes, and after he leaves you realize you don’t know his name.

The toilet paper is magenta and of newspaper-like smoothness.

You’ve grown accustomed to the smell of baking bread and diesel exhaust mingling on small narrow streets.

Drinking small cups of espresso, expressing opinions about everything while leaning on cafe counters seems a national pastime.

Your parked vehicle, wedged so tightly between other cars it’s impossible to move, needs voluntary assistance from male passersby in soccer shirts to extricate your vehicle to dented freedom.

Saying taking care of one’s own onions means mind your own business. Like these people would like you to.

If you said the land of the Gauls like those men above you are correct.

May Day is a big deal in France. A national holiday--the workers' holiday--to be exact. In fact, celebrating the cause of workers on May first is a custom that originated in the United States in the 1800's when the labor unions were at the peak of the fervor and righteous battles against abusive labor conditions. The celebration had a distinctly left-wing--even communist--flavor, and perhaps that's why in the US the date was quietly moved to early September and the name of the holiday changed to Labor Day.

But in a country where going on strikes is a national pastime and the left--if delusional--remains somewhat a force to be reckoned with, the Fête du Travail is sacrosanct. Besides, it kicks off the merry month of May, which in France is all the merrier for having more official holidays (thus, time off work) than any other month. With the Fête du Travail, and the Catholic holidays of Ascension and Pentecôte all being official national holidays and thus mandatory days off, the national preoccupation becomes "making the bridge" between the official day off and the nearest weekend. Making the bridge (faire le pont) means scheming to take yet another day or two off to connect the official holiday with the weekend and thus being able to leave town for a real mini-vacation.

Need I mention that nothing much of importance gets done here during the month of May. However, the French do usher in this month by buying for oneself or one's loved ones or friends a pot or bouquet of lily of the valley (muguet de bois). Lily of the valley is referred to as a "porte-bonheur"--literally, "bringer of happiness" or perhaps what we would call a good luck charm.

A few days before May Day, you begin to see vendors popping up on every corner selling lily of the valley. Although at all other times of the year, selling any kind of flowers or anything else on the street requires paying for a permit, merry May Day is exempted from this evil tax, and anyone can sell the blossoms anywhere without being tithed by the city. And of course, every florist has pots and bouquets of lily of the valley dominating their outdoor displays. The pots for lily of the valley are always deep and vase-shaped, another tradition. Commuters are everywhere clutching their lily of the valley, to be offered to girl- or boyfriend, husband or wife, dinner host, boss, you name it. Even the Metro is perfumed.

Cara - Tuesday

The Murder of Vlado Herzog

In a comment, posted yesterday to this blog, Michele wrote, “It seems so many of the recent posts in your separate countries are tragedies--South Africa murder, ash and fire over Iceland, rain and death in Brazil, riots and corrupt government in Thailand.”

I think you make a good point, Michele. And in this blog, readers rule. So next week, I promise, I’ll post something lighter.
But that will be next week.
By the time I read your comment, I'd already prepared my post for today.
It’s an insight into what life was like in Brazil a generation ago.
And is, alas, another tragedy.

The year was 1975. I’d been living and working in the country for almost two years. The military dictatorship was at its height. One of my colleagues, Clarice Herzog, was married to the journalist Vlado Herzog.
Most people knew him as Vladimir, a name he’d chosen to use professionally. He was born in what is now Croatia, but his parents had brought him to Brazil when he was very young. He took a degree in philosophy, became a journalist, worked for Brazil’s newspaper of record, the Estado de São Paulo, and spent three years in London with the BBC. He was, therefore, eminently qualified for the position he took up in the early 1970’s: editor- in-chief of the news arm of TV Cultura, São Paulo’s public television outlet.
In those days, the press was heavily censored. Vlado had to struggle to put out an objective version of the news. That struggle, and his professed liberal leanings, brought him to the attention of the authorities. On the 24th of October, 1975, he was summoned to the DOI-CODI’s headquarters to tell them what he knew about the illegal Communist Party.
The DOI-CODI, 250 agents strong, was the intelligence and political repression arm of the dictatorship.
It was located on the Rua Tutóia in downtown São Paulo. We’d refer to the building as the "Tutóia Hilton" (after Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton) because torture, and occasionally murder, was rumored to take place in the basement.
But we kept our hopes up for Vlado. He was too well known. They wouldn’t dare. Surely not.
But dare they did. The following day, the evening of the 25th of October, a day I remember as clearly as the day Kennedy was shot, my doorbell rang just before midnight. It was a colleague, going from house-to-house, spreading the news: Vlado had “hung himself” in his cell.
The instrument used to carry out his suicide was reputed to be his belt. But prisoners were always relieved of their belts. We didn’t believe the government’s story. None of us did.
The photos of the body in situ, released much later, bore us out.
Vlado’s legs were bent. It’s physically impossible to kill oneself in that position. And there were two marks of hanging on his neck. If he’d truly hung himself, there’d be only one.
Most damning of all, Vlado wasn’t the first prisoner to “hang himself” while in custody. Before him, there’d been thirty-seven others.
Henry Sobel, chief rabbi of the largest synagogue in São Paulo, authorized Vlado to be buried in the center of the Jewish cemetery, rather than in a corner as tradition demanded in cases of suicide.

And at Vlado’s internment, the leading members of all the other major faiths in the city gathered to pay their last respects.

The firm position taken by the clergymen undermined the DOI-CODI’s claims. A government investigation followed. The head of the junta ordered a clean-up.
And that was the beginning of the end for Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Today, almost thirty-five years later, the street on which the studios and offices of TV Cultura stand is named after Vlado.
And there’s a documentary about him, and a best-selling book, and even a Vladimir Herzog Prize for Amnesty and Human Rights.
Of the photos of the time, two continue to haunt me, even more than that of his body hanging in the cell.
This one of Clarice and her children at the funeral.
And this one of Vlado in his cell, stripped naked and waiting for what was to come.

Leighton – Monday

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Seeing Red

Grenades on the streets of Bangkok.  People shot dead.  This is literally unprecedented in the history of the kingdom.  There have been demonstrations and coups before, but never like this. 

The conventional wisdom in the corridors of power was that all the rebellious Red Shirts -- mostly villagers in from the countryside -- would pack it up and go home for the riotous Thai new year festival called Songkran.  The government figured all they had to do was hold out for a few weeks, and Bangkok would empty as everyone headed back up north, where the festival originated hundreds of years ago.  Surprise.  Everybody stayed.

This is a big deal.  For all the drunkenness and water-throwing, Songkran is a major holiday.  Far-flung families come together to pay respect to elders, to make promises to loved ones.  Everyone visits a Wat to pray and be blessed by monks.  They pour scented water over images of the Buddha.  Every train in the country is full. But not this year. This year, everything is different.

The country faces literally unprecedented change.

In my 2009 book, BREATHING WATER, one character gives another what he calls "The idiot's guide to the coup."  Since all this began -- in a manner of speaking -- with the coup, let's look at it for a moment.  And to understand the coup, you have to go back to 1762.

That was the year the Burmese burned the old Thai capital of Ayutthaya for the umpteeth time, and an ambitious general went downriver, persuaded seven families to lend him an enormous amount of money, and began to build Bangkok, pausing to declare himself king along the way.  Here's why that event was the beginning of everything.  First, descendants of those seven families -- all Thai-Chinese, light-skinned Bangkok residents-to-be -- have held power ever since. Second, the general's name was Thaksin.

The light-skinned Thai-Chinese of Bangkok have run the show for almost 250 years.  From this power elite have come the kingdom's political and military leaders, even many of its religious figures.  The brown-skinned non-Chinese Thais outside Bangkok worked the land, got soaked for the benefit of the rich, and pretty much did as they were told.

Until another Thaksin, a communications billionaire named Thaksin Shinawatra, bought enough votes -- from the poor -- to be named prime minister.  Thaksin is Thai-Chinese from Bangkok, and light-skinned, but he was never a member of the power elite.  His claim to the office was pretty good -- he was the first prime minister in history to win a majority of the popular vote -- and he went on to become the first prime minister in history to serve a full term.  And then the first to be re-elected without wandering around in the political wilderness between terms.  

But he was imperious, a born unilateralist in a society based (at least on the surface) on consensus.  And he made two big mistakes.   First, he sold his company for billions of dollars to the Malaysians and used an obscure tax dodge to avoid paying a penny to the country of which he was the leader.  This infuriated pretty much everyone and led to corruption charges.  Second, he left the country to pay state visits elsewhere.  In his absence, he power elite made its move.  Tanks hit the street, government house was seized, and Thaksin's political party was outlawed.

The power elite held an election.  The people voted in one of Thaksin's allies.  The power elite deposed him and held another election.  The poor gave their votes to another of Thaksin's intimates.  The power elite tossed him, decided the hell with elections for the moment, and bought off just enough members of Thaksin's outlawed party to grab the majority in the national assembly.  They then appointed a nice, good-natured telegenic young man named Abhisit to be prime minister.

There were riots.  Red shirts materialized and took to the streets.  Yellow shirts, loyal to the power elite, arose to oppose them.   Things heated up and then, this being Thailand, cooled down again.

Not for long, though.  The red shirts are back, and they mean business.  As the poor see it, they've voted three prime ministers in and all three have been booted out.  The red shirts are poor and relatively dark-skinned, and they're mad as hell.  They want a say in the way the country is run.  The nation's rice farmers, who are often one bad crop away from sending their daughters down to Bangkok to work in a bar, would like a seat at the table when a handful of light-skinned Thai-Chinese meet to decide the world price of Thai rice and to identify the minuscule percentage of that price that will be paid to the farmers.

And to ratchet up the tension even higher, the nation's beloved king -- the moral, ethical, and even spiritual center of the nation -- is 82 years old.  Most Thais are terrified at the prospect of losing a beloved father, one who, they feel, has always protected them and had their welfare at heart.  The King of Thailand is in fact a great man, and his loss, should he pass away, will cause almost unimaginable grief.  It will be a national tragedy.

But it's one of two.  Because it's also a tragedy that neither Thaksin's group nor the power elite really has the welfare of the people at heart.   What's actually at stake is the river of corruption money that flows through the kingdom -- billions of dollars a year.  No matter what the people want to believe, the fight at the highest levels of power is over who gets to hold the scoop.  The Thai people deserve much, much better.

Tim -- Sunday

Friday, April 23, 2010

St George's Cross to Bear

Today is St George's Day in England. The upcoming election (which has got very, very interesting since I last posted, but I'll come to that next week) has swallowed much of the headlines, as has the travel chaos left by volcanic ash (I live under the flight path to Heathrow and the quiet was uncanny. If it hadn't been for the rattle of distant tube trains, I'd have thought something was really wrong.) Which means the annual debate over St George and why we don't celebrate it has been stilled somewhat.

The argument goes something like this: Q. Why don't we English celebrate St George like, say the Irish do St Patrick?  A. Because no one feels the need to. Q. Why not? Are we ashamed to be English? Shouldn't we celebrate it? A. Not really. There are other ways to celebrate Englishness. And anyway, isn't celebrating rather un-English? Q. You see, that's the problem. We act as if we're ashamed to be English, and play it down. It's people like you that do us down. I don't see the Irish playing it down. A. The Irish have been have had their identity trampled upon for many years. By the English. No wonder they feel the need to give voice to their nationalism when we did our level best to quell it. Q. It's this kind of self-loathing guilt I can't stand. I'm English and I'm proud. A. Oh shut up you jingoistic fool. St George was a foreigner anyway. He never even visited the country.

Or something like that. People do try and celebrate it but there's always something faintly apologetic about their efforts. A friend has been invited to a celebration during the lunch hour at work (which tells you all you need to know about how highly they value it.) The idea is to bring along food that is red and white, matching the cross of St George. Suggestions are scones with cream and jam; red and white iced buns; strawberries and cream; the suggested drinks are dandelion and burdock and ginger beer. There will be a quiz. Wild. Forgive me my lack of patriotism but give me seven pints of Guinness and a ceilidh any day of the week.

We don't just have St George to ourselves either. It is the second most important National Feast in Catalonia, where the day is known in Catalan as La Diada de Sant Jordi and it is traditional to give a rose and a book to a loved one. Slightly more enticing than an iced bun and some fizzy pop.

The campaign to celebrate St George and make it a public holiday has become pretty tiresome. It's always the same faces and voices, as well as the right-wing press bemoaning the fact the English don't have a day in which all that is English and good is celebrated. The fact is, as my friend's invitation shows, no one quite knows how to do this celebrating. Given how the cross of St George's has been hijacked by the right in the past, there are many who don't feel comfortable flying it. We have no national trauma or forced diaspora which encourages to defiantly assert our national identity (some would argue our past of inflicting the odd national trauma and diaspora means we should keep schtum). Other than scones and ginger beer, maybe with a bit of Morris Dancing (don't even ask...) thrown in, the ideas on how to mark this occasion are pretty lame.

Then there's the awkward fact of St George himself. As I mentioned earlier, research appears to show he was born and raised in what is now Turkey. He was a fourth century Roman general who was killed for professing Christianity. There are some who say he never existed. I'm pretty sure the dragon didn't. Whether he lived or not, what good is a bloke who never stepped on the land he was made patron saint of? There have been polls to try and come up with better candidate, but not surprisingly the job of patron saint is a difficult one to interview for. In a recent BBC survey St Alban came top, the first British Christian martyr. He had the benefit of not being a warmonger like George, and looked a lot like Jesus. Yet nothing much happened as a consequence. St George kept the gig and the debate about how to celebrate him keeps cropping up.

Funnily enough, while flags rarely fly on St George's Day,  in a few weeks you will be barely able to move for them. That's when the English football team will embark on yet another heroic effort to claim the World Cup; before they lose heroically on penalties in the quarter finals, as is traditional, St George's Cross's will hang in windows, flutter from car aerials, and be festooned across pubs.

I'm happy with the way things are. There is nothing worse than forced jollity, and a contrived public celebration fills me with dread. Not that I'm not proud to be English. I am and there are many characteristics I value in my country and its occupants. The sense of humour, the warm beer, its wonderful, cosmopolitan capital city, the fact it has embraced immigration in such a way that its national dish is now curry, folk music, trainspotters, the way we go a bit mad when the sun comes out, the way we take a delicate oriental infusion and then throw loads of milk and sugar in it, apologising when it wasn't really your fault, crisp frosty winter mornings, cricket, and the endless talking about the weather even when the weather isn't really that spectacular. Hell, I'll even sing along to Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem (but not the national anthem. That's an awful dirge.) But I see little point in making a day of it.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Left, right, and the not-so-silent middle

The last few weeks have been tumultuous in South Africa.  Two events triggered the storm.  First, in a wave that has been building over the past month or so, Julius Molema, head of the youth league of the ruling African National Congress (ANCYL) has snubbed his party and the courts by continuing to sing a freedom song, Aw dubul'ibhunu (“Shoot the Boer”).  The second event took place around the same time.  Eugène Terre'Blanche, the head of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging or AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) – a far-right-wing Afrikaner group – was brutally murdered by two of his Black employees.  
The country was suddenly convulsed.  Nervous Whites considered whether it was time to flee the country, and many Blacks regarded Terre’Blanche’s death as overdue.  And the media had a wonderful time.
Today, however, the storm has passed – largely due to the silent majority, who favor a peaceful, non-racist South Africa, finding its voice both collectively and individually.
Julius Molema is a lightening rod in South African politics.  He is extremely vocal – a firebrand, some would say – and is widely despised by the White, Colored (mixed race), and Indian communities.  They regard him as promoting and fostering racism.  They feel that if he got his way, South Africa would be an all-Black country, with other race groups not welcome.  Many Blacks are wary of him because his rhetoric does not mesh with their generally conservative view of the world in which stability and some prosperity is paramount.  However, there is a large group of Blacks, which rightly feels that it has improved little since the current, democratic government took power after apartheid in 1994, that supports Molema’s inflammatory oratory.  It is this group that the Whites are nervous about.
Last year Molema started singing an old freedom song that talks of killing the “boers”.  The word “boer” means farmer in Afrikaans, but is often used to mean anyone who is White and Afrikaans speaking.  Of course, it is not difficult to extrapolate further for the word to include all Whites.  You can listen to the song at, where it is being sung at the funeral of a black activist.  
Earlier this year, a human rights group asked the courts to ban the song on the grounds it constituted hate speech.  The court ruled with the group and directed Molema to stop singing the song.  Molema and the ANC have challenged the ruling on the basis that freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution.  However, the ANC ledership realized the damage that Molema was doing and also forbade him from singing the song.
On a recent visit to Zimbabwe, where he indicated his support for President Robert Mugabe and his farm-grabbing policies, he again sang the “Kill the Boers” song.  Of course, he argued that since he was outside South Africa, he could do what he wanted.  The ANC leadership was not pleased and is in the process of holding a disciplinary hearing. 
But the extent of Molema’s rhetoric, his blatant defiance of both ANC leadership and the courts, and his strong support of Mugabe, started to spook a lot of White South Africans.  It was common to hear statements like “I told you so.  Blacks can’t govern.  South Africa is going the way of Zimbabwe!”
It was poor timing that Eugène Terre'Blanche, the leader of South Africa’s extreme right wing AWB group, was murdered as this furor over the song was taking place.  Terre'Blanche was beaten to death by two of his Black employees, one older and one a mere 15-years old.  They turned themselves into the police and have been charged with murder.  It appears that they had tried on a number of occasions to get the pay that had been due to them since December, but Terre'Blanche kept refusing.  There are also allegations that Terre'Blanche was abusing them sexually, although I think this is more likely to be part of the hysteria and hyperbole that followed the murder.  In reading about the unfortunate event I did find one statement that caught my attention.
“Andre Visagie, secretary-general of the AWB, said that Mr Terre’Blanche, 69, had not had the energy to rape someone as he had not taken his heart medication on the day of his death.” (  I can only wonder where that came from.
Terre’Blanche was a nasty piece of work.  During the run up to the change of government in 1994, he was involved in a number of attacks (World Trade Centre in Johannesburg and a bombing in his home town of Ventersdorp) aimed to stop democracy that resulted in several deaths.  For these he was formally forgiven by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998.  He was also convicted to 6 years in prison for assaulting a farm worker in 1996 and attempting to murder a security guard.  He was released after 3 years.
So on April 3rd, the day Terre’Blanche was murdered, the waves from these two firebrands, one on the right and one on the left, come together to form a storm.  And for two weeks, what a storm it was.  And many were fearful that it would undo everything good that has happened in South Africa since 1994.  That it would ruin the Rainbow Nation.
But it did not take long for the middle to stir.  The middle comprises people of all colors, generally not involved in politics, who want decent lives for themselves, and a promising future for their kids. 
For example, an unknown 22-year old man, Christoff Smuts, from Wellington, a town near Cape Town, felt things were getting out of hand, that the majority were not being heard.  During a break at work, he put in a few minutes and started a Facebook initiative, called the Green Skin Initiative, which has become one of the most prominent outlets for ‘middle ground’ South Africans.  The aim was “to calm everybody down, to show that there are still good people, and that we can all be united for a moral goal - the eradication of racism in South Africa”.
The group encourages South Africans to take a stand against racism, and plans to organize nationwide rallies where people will paint themselves green to show that - despite different cultures and races - South Africans can be united against racism.
The amazing thing is that the group had 38 000 members in less than six days, before being shut down by Facebook – without apparent reason.  Although this was a blow to the momentum they had built up, Smuts says the initiative is still growing, and he is still inundated with messages from people offering their skills and resources to the cause. 
I checked Facebook this morning, and it appears the initiative is alive again with over 13,000 members.  See!/pages/The-Green-Skin-Initiative/116023658414082?ref=ts
Other groups have also been formed – South-Africa-Neutral with over 2000 members in a week or two, and Let’s Destroy Racism in South Africa with nearly 7000 members.
So perhaps the two storms that caused the turmoil may have resulted in good.  South Africans in the middle are beginning to make their opinions known and hopefully felt. 
Long live the un-silent middle.

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


“São as águas de março”

Tom Jobim

When it comes to the vagaries of nature, Brazil is particularly blessed. Down here we don't get volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, typhoons or hurricanes.
We get rain.
But before you conclude that rain is entirely inoffensive , peruse these pictures.
They’ll give you an idea of what long-lasting, torrential, Brazilian downpours are capable of.

In many parts of this country it rained, almost constantly, from the beginning of March until mid-April.
And, in some places, the rain is still going on.
This is the main highway between Santos and Rio de Janeiro.  Rain-induced landslides destroyed the road and cut off the two cities, one from the other, for days.
Larger landslides have killed hundreds in the last fortnight.
How many hundreds?
Nobody really knows.
Here’s why: landslides seldom bring down wealthy communities. Landslides almost always bring down shantytowns. (favelas). Those shantytowns are constructed on land too poor, or inaccessible, for anyone with a modicum of money in the bank to be interested in. And the occupation of that land is technically illegal and always unregistered. When the whole community slides down the hill some of the bodies are recovered. Others often disappear beneath the rubble – and stay there.
That was the case here, on Bumba Hill, just across the Niteroi bridge from Rio de Janeiro. The favela was built on what had been a garbage dump up until the late 1970’s. Experts had warned, time and again, that it was going to plunge down the hillside one day. But people built anyway. The municipality did nothing.
And then the rains came.
More than two hundred people died.
Some of them found permanent graves among the still-rotting garbage.

In Angra dos Reis, on the other side of Rio, the disaster was similar, but on a much smaller scale. Estimates of deaths don’t exceed forty.

Depressing? Sure it is. And more depressing still, it happens every year.
The quote with which I begin this post translates as “they’re the waters of march.” It’s from a song by Tom Jobim and, other than the reference to our yearly rain event, has nothing to do with the sad stories I’ve just related.

But, if you need a little cheering up, as I do at the moment, “Aguas de Março” is just the thing to do it. Here’s Tom performing it with Elis Regina back in 1974:

Leighton - Wednesday