Thursday, December 21, 2006

Old friends and new...

A special report in today's Guardian newspaper highlights how a journalist became the British National Party's central London organiser. What he reveals is an inside account of the paranoia, the clandestine meetings, rendezvous, secret lists and more at the heart of an extremist organisation pushing for electoral credibility.

The BNP, for those who don't know, is an extreme Right organisation with links to violent racists. However, it is steadily climbing in the polls in the UK (though still well behind other small parties, such as the Greens, and way behind its French friends in movements such as Jean-Marie le Pen's Front National).

Anyone who has read Homeland cannot fail to see the background to the party and its members, many of whom have been involved in white supremacist movements for many years.

In addition, news from the New York Times that Iran has hosted a Holocaust denial conference. No wonder, really, given President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's desire to see Israel wiped off the face of the Earth. Strange times make for strange bedfellows and no stranger chap there is than former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who put in an attendance. Reminds me of the invite I got to a similar event in Lebanon five years ago. Plus ca change, eh?

Seems like the season of good will to all men is truly upon us!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Me & Gorgeous George

Somehow or other, yours truly managed to spend a Sunday afternoon as an extra in a new George Galloway pop video (the things I do for book research...)

The re-make of the Edwin Starr single 'War (What Is It Good For?)' is out on 1 January. I'll write more about the experience in my articles and book.

Respect link here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

In the Shadow of the City

A little introduction to a new story of mine...

The call for the dead rings out. It is a haunting, lonely sound. The Kaddish rasps from the throats of the shuffling, elderly men: perhaps the last time that Rosh Hashanah, and ceremonies handed down for over 3000 years, will be celebrated here. The last time, too, that long-dead relatives, their names inscribed in fading gold leaf, will be remembered in the ghetto they made so famous.

Yet step outside the peeling grandeur of the Congregation of Jacob, one of the last surviving synagogues in the East End of London, and another song is calling. That song lies west, down the Roman-straight expanse of the A13, past the Blind Beggar pub and its faded Kray Twins infamy, towards the glittering chrome of the Gherkin. The beat of its heart is contained in the tongues of a hundred nations; its rhythm the call to prayer, lilting and hypnotic, mixing with the rough hip-hop of its sound systems.

As dusk draws down during the Ramadan evenings, the streets and alleyways around the massive East London Mosque swarm with the faithful. Arab, Bangladeshi and African flow like a river into the great building, ready for their iftar meals of water and dates, and for i'tikaf, the 10-day show of penitence and prayer undertaken by the ultra-pious. For here, in the centre of so-called 'Banglatown', the masjid (mosque) is now the centre of life, not the shul (synagogue); tawhid (oneness with God) and the ummah, the worldwide Islamic brotherhood, the lifeblood of the community.

Further to the east is Essex. The forgotten Britain some joke. Home, too, to flights of those same immigrants – Cockneys, Irish and Jews – that once dominated East End life. Sprawling interwar suburbs then the sea, and the age-old escape from the ghetto. Over the last two generations, it has become a haven to those whites who venerated the traditions of the East End: pie and mash, the Blitz spirit, and an England that once was.

More recently, though, it has become a housing mecca: to Bangladeshis moving from Banglatown on the first step towards prosperity. And to literally thousands of Africans and East Europeans, flooding into the area since the last census in 2001. A tide of peoples attracted by the cheapest private accommodation in London, in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Barking and Dagenham also boasts a government Minister, Margaret Hodge. It has been a Labour stronghold since 1919. A home to the Ford Motor Company in Britain, and the birthplace of (among others) protest songwriter and anti-racist icon Billy Bragg. It is barely a stone's throw from Stratford, gateway to the Olympics.

Just four miles separates Tower Hamlets from Barking and Dagenham. A short hop on the C2C from Fenchurch Street or quick drive down the A13 linking the East End to Essex and the sea. Two worlds connected by the same peoples and the same history, watched over by the looming spires of the City. Places of unprecedented regeneration and pockets of wealth; places of rapid change and dire poverty, among the poorest in the country.

Read the edited version up at The Observer Magazine [full version to come on my own website].

You can read some initial comment to the piece at Harry's Place.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Death after football match connected to anti-Semitism

This in from The International Herald Tribune last week:

Violence that broke out when Paris Saint-Germain fans ganged up on a Hapoel Tel Aviv supporter — culminating in a shooting death — shows the need to crack down on racism and anti-Semitism among soccer fans, the Paris mayor said Friday. The brawl Thursday night ended with a plainclothes police officer shooting into the crowd to protect the Hapoel fan, killing one person and injuring another, police said. "The seriousness of this event confirms the absolute necessity of fighting racism and anti-Semitism among PSG fans," Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said in a statement. Delanoe said he would contact the Paris police chief and the president of PSG, which plays in the French first division, to come up with a plan to fight the problem. "I want to make sure that Paris' image and values are respected under every circumstance — there is no room for the slightest form of intolerance," Delanoe said. Hooliganism, overt racism and fan violence have plagued PSG and, more generally, French soccer — even as other countries like Britain have had considerable success in combatting such problems.

Tougher punishments for hooligans and repeated vows from French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and other politicians that soccer violence will no longer be tolerated have failed to eradicate the problem. The incident at a McDonald's fast food restaurant near the Parc des Princes stadium occurred after Hapoel Tel Aviv's 4-2 victory over PSG in a UEFA Cup match. The officer, who was not identified, was trying to protect a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan set upon by some 150 PSG supporters, police said. He lobbed tear gas when the crowd went after him then fired two shots, "having been driven into a corner," police said. The Paris prosecutor's office and the National Police General Inspection unit, which probes incidents involving law enforcement officers, were investigating, police said. French Sports Minister Jean-Francois Lamour denounced the "climate and tension at certain soccer matches." In a statement, he said the incident was "unacceptable and tainted the image of sports."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Irish-Americans convert to Islam

Something I missed in my usual email flood:

Abdul-Malik is not a typical Irish Gaelic speaker. He isn't elderly, rosy-cheeked, or particularly fond of wool sweaters -- and his Muslim faith prohibits him from stopping at the pub for a pint of Guinness.

But for the past several weeks, the 32-year-old Homewood man has spent Saturday afternoons inside a classroom on Chicago's Northwest Side, navigating the sometimes confusing grammatical structure of the Irish language....

...Eleven years ago, when Abdul-Malik converted to Islam, he rediscovered his Irish roots and developed an interest in language, particularly how it was used by Irish political groups involved in the lengthy struggle against British rule.

Read the whole piece here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Society Sleepwalking

A shaven-headed burglar and self-confessed ram raider. An anaemic 14-year-old born to smackheads, praying to a willow called the 'Death Tree'. The gypsy child, destroying a bedroom in front of my eyes, playing out the memory of the beatings and bestiality visited upon him by his father...

They have come to be known as the 'Savage Generation'. Twelve year olds convicted of rape; gangs of 10-year-olds mugging elderly women; a 14-year-old running a school protection racket.

The press speaks of a growing hardcore of children gone wild, responsible for a massive 50 percent increase in violent crime amongst the 10-13 age group. One retiring magistrate has labelled the trend "unbelievable, like something out of a horror film".

I had just spent 10 days inside a privately-run institution. All about me were excluded children: a lost generation. I witnessed a riot, had my ear slashed, and saw the horror of 'settling time', as those traumatised by sexual (and other) abuse fought night-time terror.

That was over a decade ago. A century previously, in Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago, set in London's notorious East End, children even carried coshes and would rob adults. Of course, surely that must have changed...

Yet read now, and Britain has the worst-behaved children in Europe, according to a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research.

What's more, we're a nation of drunks and alcoholics. We have a property market going into overdrive (fuelled by low interest, the influx of East Europeans willing to rent, and a plethora of get-rich-quick TV programmes making us all instant millionaire investors), a high cost of living (London being one of the most expensive cities in the world), a love of petrol, a train service in some cases slower than it was when built, rising asthma and allergy rates, a pensions crisis yet hostility to almost all foreigners, and a plethora of other issues that suggest a population out of touch with the bigger picture. And that picture contains the notions of "community" and "society" in it - things sadly lacking in today's everyday discourse.

From the estates of inner London, where I have witnessed youths kotching and blazing on brown, rocks and skunk; to the leafy 'burbs where I now live, children seem to be raising themselves: groups running around, unsupervised, taking over the streets as everyone else around them jumps into cars. Go the continent, see people - normal people - walking the streets at night; see people dining out together as families; see people getting their kids used to the odd sip of wine at a meal; see young and old, socialising together.

Yet, crazily, we now live in fear of our own kids! Sheesh.

Here, I quote from the BBC report on the IPPR:

"The mental well-being of our adolescents is among the worst in Europe: one in 10 teenage girls has self-harmed. Child obesity is increasing.

Southern European nations with a strong Catholic tradition and a focus on the family do not share the same level of delinquency

Our youngsters are more consumerist in their outlook than the Americans.

Concern about adolescents is not new, but what this research does is put the UK's experience in an international context - and the conclusions are troubling.

The European comparisons, putting our youngsters at or close to the top of every indicator of bad behaviour, suggest the causes are cultural.

Southern European nations with a strong Catholic tradition and a focus on the family do not share the same level of delinquency.

Scandinavian countries with a large welfare state and a strong sense of civic engagement also perform better.

But in the UK, where we have seen big changes in family structures - rising rates of divorce and single parenthood - and where the state traditionally resists intervening in domestic life, young people have been left to their own devices.

"Hanging out with mates" is what teenagers do in the UK."

I have seen that casual violence. The pack mentality. Kids attacking kids. Kids attacking adults. Poor empathy and lack of social skills; a nation raising a generation without raising it itself. The government has responded with ASBOs, Acceptable Behaviour Contracts and other initiatives (most recently, appointing 80 child psychologist positions in the biggest problem areas).

When will parents, and we as a society, learn that if you don't set an example for your children; if you, as the adult in their life, do not spend quality time with them; how will they learn social skills, the ability to integrate and better themselves? You cannot "farm out" your children to others, and expect no consequence. Worse, you cannot farm out your children to themselves, and to the streets, without consequence. Others do not raise their children. We do. Others do not inhabit this world of ours: We Do.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Banning of the Burqa

News just in that the Dutch parliament has passed a law banning the wearing of the burqa (the full-length covering for women, used mainly in Afghanistan) in public.

The Dutch cabinet said burqas - a full body covering that also obscures the face - disturb public order and safety. But Dutch Muslim groups say a ban would make the country's one million Muslims feel victimised and alienated.

This comes hot on the heels of Britain's Jack Straw, MP, calling for Muslim women to remove the niqab (nearly-fulll face covering, leaving just the eyes exposed) when attending his constituency surgery. And follows on from riots in the French banlieux last year, involving youths from many of the North African underclass.

With the debate raging over Muslims and belonging in western societies, the issue looks certain to hot up.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Guilt-free hate?

Before the events of 7/7 ever took place, this movement helped birth London's first homegrown terrorist bomber. One of its senior bodyguards was a known figure in the Liverpool underworld. Meanwhile, his boss had denied the existence of the Holocaust - the massacre of millions of Jews by Hitler in World War Two - as "the Holohoax".

Once vice-chairman of the National Front, that same man had denied rumours of a gay love affair with NF leader Martin Webster and spent time visiting Colonel Gaddafi in the 1980s, as the Libyan president was sending money and arms to the IRA. Of course, before he ever joined the British National Party he'd met his wife (also in the NF), spent time with a bunch of Catholic nuts in the French wilderness (though he himself is said to be a pagan), managed to lose an eye, and became good friends with a former head of the Ku Klux Klan in America.

Now, as the anniversary of the Nazi's Kristallnacht passes, British National Party leader Nick Griffin has been been found not guilty of inciting racial hatred. The charges stemmed from secret filming undertaken by a BBC camera crew in 2004, in which Griffin had called Islam a "wicked, vicious faith" to a crowd of potential BNP voters in a Yorkshire pub. Nick Griffin, though now positioning himself as a "moderniser", is the very same man who cleared the way for me to travel through an international network of extremists, for my book Homeland.

Whether charges should have been brought against Griffin is another matter. The British Chancellor, and future leader of the Labour Party, is now calling for tougher race hate laws. Unite Against Fascism beats its breast, but has little actual influence on the white, working class estates where the BNP rises, unlike Searchlight; meanwhile Griffin sees himself as a resistance fighter of sorts; and on the fringes of London, where both Islamic and far-right identities have been rising, people are living geographically closer - but ideologically, culturally and politically - further apart than ever.

The irony, if there is one, is that the parties with the most "fundamental" ideologies are rising, in part, thanks to an "old Labour" approach to social welfare. With the breakdown of traditional communities gathering apace; with the rise of these "new tribes" offering black and white, fundamentalist identity in the vacuum left behind; what chance now for the moderates of our land to regain the landscape?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sad memorial to Sherlock Holmes

The Times of London reports this week that the house of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, the slightly batty creator of Sherlock Holmes, remains sadly abandoned to vagrants and the elements.

"THE curse of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has struck again. For years the house that he built in 1896 and where he wrote his classics The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Return of Sherlock Holmes was a small hotel where fans flocked from as far afield as China and America.

"But now, two years after the building was bought by a developer, the building is being allowed to fall into rack and ruin.

"A fortnight ago, on a chance visit to Undershaw, in Hindhead, Surrey, a leading expert on Doyle was shocked to discover its heraldic windows smashed, rainwater cascading through three storeys and the front door left open. Vagrants had left behind beer cans, cigarette packets and their makeshift sleeping arrangements."

Heritage campaigners, including the Victorian Society, are appealing for a benefactor to come forward, as well as trying to have its listing elevated from Grade II to I.

Kathryn Ferry, a senior architectural adviser to the Victorian Society, said of the property: “As a monument of one of our greatest literary figures, it is extremely important.”

A sad reminder of a great man reduced to a rather inglorious ending. Towards the end of his life Conan Doyle became an ardent spiritualist. After "passing to spirit" (as his spiritualist friends liked to call it) of a heart attack in 1930, a chair was left empty for his return. Unfortunately, he failed to put in a physical appearance, though of course some of the mediums claimed to have communicated with him (and still do).

Maybe old Holmes was a bit of an addict himself; and it sounds as though his creator's house may be used by the same. Still, it seems a shame, and sign of the times, when the memory one of our best-known and lovably eccentric writers can fall so quickly into sorry ruin.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Virgin shame

News from The Guardian this week:

"Virgin has been forced into an embarrassing U-turn after a new viral advertising campaign backfired spectacularly.

"The company had asked readers of, an online community known for bad taste jokes, to create a new advert for the Virgin Money brand. Hundreds of entries were submitted, but last week the company pulled the competition from the internet after concerns over some of the submissions.

"Among the entries were doctored images of Virgin's founder, Richard Branson, in compromising situations. A spokesman for Virgin Money said the company had become concerned that some of the images were "a little bit illegal", and had decided to shut down the competition to prevent further transgressions.

"But members of the site, which has a reputation for anarchic humour, are unrepentant. Rob Manuel, one of the site's founders, refused to comment when contacted. However, he told the site's subscribers that Virgin was warned to expect the worst. "I think the whole thing is funny," he wrote."

Ironically enough, I've met Rob Manuel a few times, as he happens to be the partner of a friend of mine. Haven't heard from him direct, though, on this.

For those who want the "shiny" version of Branson's background, check out his autobiography, Losing My Virginity. And for anyone who wants the "darker" side, view Tom Bower's exposé, Branson.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Record Year for Journalists Killed

I like my 'Heat' magazine as much as the rest of the population (i.e. on the crapper), but few seem to realise that beyond the celebrity-obsessed walls of the UK, there are many journalists paying with their lives to report on human rights and other abuses.

This year, the World Association of Newspapers notes, has been among the most dangerous ever to be a reporter. Seventy five (75) have been killed so far. Last year, 63 were killed in total. Hundreds more remain in prison, or are forced into exile.

Anna Politkovskaya, a famous Russian reporter, was recently found shot dead in a lift in her apartment block. She was one of the best-known Russian journalists here in the West, exposing corruption and a fierce critic of the Kremlin's actions in Chechnya. Sadly, she is merely the latest in a long line to die in the service of Truth.

In my time, I have met writers persecuted in Algeria and Turkey, in Kosovo and China; one of my friend's fathers has been forced into exile from Iran. So please, those who delight in calling us "the liberal media", open your eyes and see there is more to this profession than gossip and towing the government line. Some have paid with their lives so that you can say that.

Several other IFEX (International Freedom of Expression eXchange) members keep records of journalists killed worldwide. Visit:
- International PEN
- International Press Institute
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- Reporters Without Borders

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Writing or 'writing'?

Just read this story up on The Scotsman newspaper:

"While celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Jordan have cashed in by selling their life stories, consumer demand is fuelling untold riches for the little-known ghostwriters who penned their books.

"This month's Bookseller magazine has revealed that of the 10 bestselling non-fiction books so far this year, half were written by so-called ghosts. Mark McCrum, ghostwriter of Robbie Williams' autobiography Somebody Someday earned a £200,000 advance, plus a share of the profits. The sum dwarfs the £20,000 to £25,000 a talented literary novelist can earn in advance of publication..."

I always meet folks who seem to think I, and my fellows, earn millions from our trade. Well, here is the truth: some do. Only trouble is, I don't...

Eid Mubarak

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has ended. The iftar meals have been taken; the faithful moved closer to tawhid; the pious completed their 10-day i'tikaf in masjids around the world.

Yet as celebrations ring out, everywhere I go I see confusion about this religion. On internet message boards; among friends; in pubs; on estates; in universities; it seems we draw ever further apart. Here in Britain, the head of the race relations body warns of race riots like France last year.

The debate rages, too, about the role of the 'veil' in oppressing, or not, Muslim women. Most non-Muslims don't seem to realise there is more than one covering: niqab, hijab, chador, burqa and more, many defined by the regions in which they originated. Yet all the Qu'ran defines is for men and women to dress modestly; hijab itself means, literally, to 'cover up'.

My travels bring me into contact with people who believe; people who separate themselves out by knowledge of who they are, but also, who they are not. When young Muslim reverts (converts) who have flocked to maverick anti-war MP George Galloway tell me: "He's like you, man, he's one of you, a replica of one of you! An old version with a cigar, yeah?" I fear for their understanding, and integration, into a wider society.

Islam is a fascinating faith, but holds itself to be the perfect religion - the perfection of the path the Jewish and Christian prophets once trod. It cannot be altered. It has redemptive qualities, but fundamental views, too, on marriage, adultery, homosexuality and other issues. I have seen "sisters" unable to shake the hand of a male colleague, thanks to the strict confines of mahram. Barely a few miles away, I have spoken to white working class English who want to burn all immigrants.

The pace of change is accelerating. Global economics throws the stability so many yearn for into chaos. Traditional communities crumble. As they do, we seek out new forms of identity - identities which, all too often, separate as much as unite us from one another.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Goodbye miss jen

A sad farewell to my friend 'miss jen', who died on the weekend from a brain aneuryism. We miss you. You truly were a larger than life character. I can think of few people who filled so many lives with laughter; few who will be so sorely missed.

RIP Jen, if there is an afterlife, may you reap the rewards you so rightly deserve. We will remember you.

Cable Street - London remembers

October 4th marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Seven decades to the day when hundreds of thousands of Jews and trades unionists gathered to battle off the fascists of Oswald Moseley's "blackshirts" in the East End of London.

For months previously, Moseley's British Union of Fascists had been targeting the area, attacking the many Jewish immigrants who had flocked to the East End of London, fleeing pogroms and repression in Russia and Eastern Europe. The pubs they once gathered in are now wine bars; the area long since populated by Bangladeshi and Somali immigrants, and yuppies moving in amidst regenerated squalor.

Yet with the rise of the British National Party (BNP) - an extreme right racist movement - only four miles away in the suburb of Barking and Dagenham, the political future is uncertain in east London. This despite the arrival of the London Olympics in under six years and massive regeneration and rising property prices.

History teaches us all where we are today. We should never forget the lessons of the past. Never forget what Cable Street came to represent.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Greetings One and All

A quick note from British wordsmith Nick Ryan... yes, it had to come about. After years of ignoring my no-doubt huge fanbase, I have decided to jump into the pool and join the lemmings with my very own blog. No doubt required reading during all lunchbreaks.