Thursday, December 20, 2007

British racist politician to marry ballerina with mixed-race kid


I just had a double-take moment, browsing the BBC website.

A local politician for the extreme-right British National Party (BNP) has got engaged to a ballerina from the English National Ballet.

Richard Barnbrook, who is a councillor in east London for the BNP and one of its darlings for future political advancement, is said to have wooed "BNP ballerina" Simone Clarke with flowers after one of her shows.

Why does this strike me as strange? Well, not Barnbrook's love of the arts, because I've met him several times and heard him speak of his own background as an artist, teacher and film-maker.

More because he made a film with significant homoerotic content, yet belongs to a racist, hardline anti-gay political party; he drinks constantly, or at least did during the periods when I met him; has had TB; Clarke has a mixed-race child from a Cuban-Chinese partner (race 'mixing' is not something which sits well with many of the party faithful); and despite his brains, just seems a slightly .... odd figure, if you spend enough time around him.

Granted, journalists may make people nervous, but even so ...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Teacher freed, what next for Sudan

Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher arrested for insulting Islam (see story below) but the vexed question remains over Sudan and its future.

A fragile peace holds between north and south, with the south wanting independence and controlling 80% of the oil revenues. Thousands of southern refugees live in Khartoum in the north; the BBC reports of catastrophic violence if the south secedes in four year's time when the referendum arrives.

Throw into the mix Darfur, the African Union, the UN and the trading links the country is developing with China etc, and it's a febrile and volatile mix. Religion can easily be abused in the name of power politics, as seems to have happened with Mrs Gibbons.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Should insult Islam teacher be freed?


Should the Liverpool teacher Gillian Gibbons be freed? The same Gillian Gibbons, 54, a primary school teacher arrested in Sudan for "insulting Islam".

The answer? Yes.

Gibbon's class of kids, six and seven years olds, voted to call a teddy bear Mohammed. Parents in turn (or some at least) later (months later) got upset, and she got arrested by the cops. And then threatened with 40 lashes.

Now even my Muslim contemporaries here think that's a bit harsh (to put it mildly). The religion itself may be fine: it's the people behind it that aren't.

Let's have more people drag Islam into the 21st and not 7th century: a perfect belief should be able to shoulder criticism or ignorance, and explain and educate to the rest of us "why" (why can't a teddy bear be named Mohammed) without resorting to feudal punishments and barbarism.

The sad thing is that the divorcee, a well-respected former deputy head, went to the African country to start a new life and learn about the culture. The desire for punishment may fit with irate men. However, it does far greater harm to a chronically-weak and dependent state overseas. Hardly the best way to attract future investment and interest in the country.

The BBC has printed an explanation of what can and can't be named after Muslim prophets.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Janet & John return, and with them 1950s nostalgia


That's right: the grim old 1950s is back in vogue once more. At least according to gift publishers, who are churning out "new" volumes of old books faster than you can say "Dickson of Dock Green".

Travel and gift book publisher Summersdale has relaunched the famous reading aids, "Janet & John" in the run-up to Christmas (think: staid, slightly un-PC nuclear family post-war), whilst there are other examples of the trend highlighted by many more launches in the trade.

Seems folks love looking backwards as we hurtle into the arms of the future. Still, better these than the extremist hate-filled Christian I once met selling traditional children's books from the Victorian era ... and correctional beating sticks to go with them!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

[Fantasy] Once Upon A Time In Azeroth

A continuation of some of my fictional fantasy writings, which I do "on the side" from my regular journalism and non-fiction work. This concerns the death of an infamous slaver and smuggler known as Opathu Two-Smile.

***

The sands of time.

They fell loose.

He coughed. Blood. His lungs were filling.

The last day of his life.

-

The hard sun of the early morning was yet to lift. Cobwebs and shadow lay over the settlement. If his nose was still there, he'd expect to smell the cooking fires. Small children running through the teepees. Calflings and braves bringing back the morning's hunt.

Instead, the fires of conquest.

-

How foolish he'd been. Lazy. Letting the goblins run his business interests. Betrayed by those once close.

He coughed again. Fluid bubbled between his cracked, smashed tusks. The gold of his filed teeth did him little help now.

A massive, muscled body, carved and twisted in a lace of foreign battles, tattoos a chart to a life fought from the gutter up.

He laughed, a wet, sickening sound. His bowels had emptied. He had no control. There was none to save a crimelord gone down. His enemies - those that were left - would no doubt be gathering like the hard-eyed vultures he could hear overhead.

-

How had it come to this?

He couldn't remember.

Something about a young orc, a psychopath who ate the flesh of his victims. Dwarves? Or was it elves? Didn't matter now. A call to arms. Your smuggling operation being smashed by an Alliance raid - a tip off someone said. Someone working on the inside. One of his men.

Charging in, the red mist. A whirlwind; the orgy of violence Two-Smile danced so well.

He panted. Air was getting hard.

-

Convenient. Oh, it had been oh so convenient! He was a fool. A fool gone soft. The lessons of the internment camps, of knife fights and killings in the gutters off the Drag now lost.

What did it matter. Some new fool would take his place. A new Opathu. Gutter kids with feral grins and thin stomachs, and a hunger for power to match. Just as he'd once been.

He wondered which one had betrayed him. Or if it was one of those fops in the Theatre. Didn't matter now. The gang was split. Senjin Bob found hanging from his own entrails. Harrkan One-Eye garrotted in Ratchet. Ten-Pole the Tauren mysteriously found floating in Booty Bay.

The old crew. The 'ard bastards. All gone.

-

And with that, the giant orc slaver, more corpse now than man, smiled.

A terrible sight for the small orcling watching from behind the smoking ruin of the inn.

The child whimpered. Nearby the corpse of its mother lay. Her body was racked into a rictus grin of terror. The silvered fiends had dragged her outside, him watching from the shadows, after they kicked and beat the orc boss to the ground. He hadn't understood their words, but they had lain on top of his mother, and she had shrieked.

Oh how she had howled ...

The boss orc stirred. He motioned weakly to the child, who scampered further into the brush. He looked again. The boss was scrabbling in the dirt, trying to pull himself up. What should he do?

-

An ambush, then. Aye an ambush. A fitting way to end. As good as any.
Two-Smile against 20 of them. Twenty humans, some of whom would not make it back to their boy-slaves and man-lovers. That at least was worth the pain.

He chuckled, grimaced, bit down hard then black blood jetted from his mouth. A carpet of gore was seeping into the sandy earth.

Bit by bit, the life of Opathu Two-Smile, Azeroth's most notorious crime lord, slaver, assassin, pit fighter, smuggler and defiler of Vol'jin's daughter, was returning to whence it came. Dying on a foreign world. Dying so that others might live.

He cursed and laughed at the cruel irony, the black stink of the Abyss approaching.

-

... time short now ...

... a body lying at the Crossroads ...

... flames and murder glittering in the last light of its eyes ...

... pupils flickering to the final dance ...

... any time now ...

... no rescue, no escape ...

... a single tear, of blood, rolled down his cheek.


The child watched him die. And wept.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The most amazing loos in the world


Check out this little story to see the diamond-encrusted washrooms where you can enjoy your moment on the porcelain god ...

God hates Westboro?


Fred Phelps saddo little community of haters (God Hates Fags) has got itself into the headlines again: this time not its usual media whoredom (a myriad of international media have, as usual, treated the weirdo cult as a cause celebre and bumped it up through mass coverage) but for a $10.9m damages case.

God Hates Fags loves to claim that the world is going to ruin, through all our various sins, and their nutty little outfit seems to have picked on celebrities, the liberal, gays and just about everyone else as the reason why. Even the US military, where it pickets funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq (wait for it...) because the Armed forces allow gays. Not only that, but Uncle Sam's tolerance of homosexuals is the reason the country is going to ruin...

Phelps, who looks like that bizarre old ghost preacher in 'Poltergeist', says that he is a preacher who believes that homosexuality and its acceptance have doomed most of the world to eternal damnation. The church at Westboro which he leads has 71 confirmed members, 60 of whom are related to Phelps through blood or marriage or both.

Now a federal jury in Baltimore, Maryland, Wednesday awarded $10.9 million to a father of a Marine whose funeral was picketed by members of the "church". The family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder -- who was killed in a vehicle accident in Iraq's Anbar province in 2006 -- sued the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, and its leaders for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Church members showed up at Snyder's funeral chanting derogatory slogans and holding picket signs with messages including "God Hates Fags." Sounds like they would go well with some angry young men I have met the world over, espousing religious beliefs 'set in stone' to justify pathetic hatred.

And where people harp on about gays (always gay men, note), methinks it is the usual "no smoke without fire". Why protest so much ... unless you have your own secret to hide. Should we be removing religion from men's hearts? Makes you wonder.

Monday, October 29, 2007

E-demand comes to publishing


According to the London Telegraph newspaper, it'll soon be possible to download books to the new Apple iPhone. Not to mention that The Espresso Book Machine (EBM) is coming to the UK in 2008, allowing you to order and print off rare and discontinued books direct from a terminal whilst you wait (or sip a latte next door).

The latter project is the brainchild of publisher Jason Epstein, long a prophet of change in the industry. Is this the way the (overstuffed) world of books is going?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Carnage in the genteel world of books

It's the number one dream job. So say the opinion polls. We all want to produce one, and we all think we can retire to the sun after doing it.

Yet, as the stark reality shows, if you write a book for money you may as well work for the local supermarket.

As this fascinating Observer piece from the Frankfurth Book Fair shows, writing is the least important thing taking place in the over-stuffed world of books, agents and supermarkets demanding fewer titles and with higher sales.

And what dominates this year is the collapse of my own agency, PFD, due to some sort of bungled incompetence that has led all its agent to walk out. Leaving us writers, as ever, trailing in the wake of the refuse and shaking our heads, waiting an uncertain future.

this year, at least, everyone's been unanimous about which back to stab: the dying corpse of what was once the biggest and one of the most prestigious literary agencies in Britain, PFD.

It's a business that's been all over the broadsheets and the gossip columns in the last few weeks, and before I leave home I talk to Joel Rickett, deputy-editor of the Bookseller, who tells me: 'Nobody's talking about anything else! They're all vicariously transfixed by it. It's complete carnage.' And it's certainly a rollercoaster of a story fuelled by rumour and counter-rumour: in 2001 CSS Stellar, a sports agency, bought PFD, a literary, theatrical and actors' agency; then, earlier this year, the agents attempted a management buyout, which CSS rejected, following which several key agents resigned, including Pat Kavanagh, agent to the great and the good, celebrated doyenne of the literary scene, and wife of Julian Barnes.

And then, parachuted into the heart of the story as new boss at PFD, came Caroline Michel, ex-head of the William Morris agency and before that HarperCollins, one half of a media power couple (she's married to Lord Evans, former chairman of Faber & Faber) and usually accompanied in newspaper articles, particularly those that happen to be written by men, by adjectives such as 'fragrant', 'glamorous' and 'charming'. Just not charming enough, it has transpired, to prevent all 85 members of PFD staff from resigning.

It is nothing short of a blood-bath. And in the middle of it all are the tug-of-love children: the writers, whose fate is being fought over but who nobody seems to be actually talking to.


Writing a book is great. It's just the rest of the crap that comes along that spoils the party.

My latest articles and reviews in The Express


You can read a selection of my regular reviews, and occasional double-page spread features, for the UK's Daily Express newspaper up at this URL.

For example, see the lead review of Ken Follett's new novel, World Without End. Or catch the horrendous tale of the 1,400 British prisoners-of-war who were shipped off by the Nazis to Auschwitz.

My reviews are normally in the Friday or Saturday edition of the paper; my paperback columns appear in the Sunday paper.

Friday, October 12, 2007

[Extract] Chasing The Dragon


A small extract from my book on London, a work-in-progress:

Chasing The Dragon

His eyes fluttered, butterfly-light. The finger tips of his small hands danced across his lap, mapping out, perhaps, some unseen land. The acrid scent burned the back of my nose and I felt it. I lurched. Then it hit.

The Dragon.

Redz had told me to meet him by the betting shop. It was grey. A carpet of people swept over the gum-strewn streets of Whitechapel. They swarmed over its steps, past the Chinese selling their fake DVDs, the Albanian cigarette smugglers, the Cockney stallholders who now swore in Bengali as fluent as their East End patois. It swept you up like a tide, this crush, and it bore you down past the Blind Beggar and its haunted memories, towards Vallance Road and the Krays.

Smoke, hashish, cursing and calling; hijabs, niqaab reflected in the plate glass of a new bar. Russian corruscating off Arabic, and the looming bulk of the Royal London and its ghosts of the Elephant Man, John Merrick.

I fetched up by the statue of the angel, left behind by the Jewish community to their dead King in 1911. I fetched up and held on. I looked about me. And smiled.

"Yo, s'up bruv?" Redz said hesitantly.

"Asalaam Aleikoum, habibi," I chuckled, ribbing him about his lack of true Arabic.

"Why you speakin' Arab for man?" he accused. "You ain't even Muslim". And he sucked through his teeth, disrespectfully.

"I enjoy it my friend - why, you have a problem with that?"

"Nah .. s'just stoopid innit." He looked at me with contempt ... or perhaps eagerness. "You got it?"

His voice was demanding. Hesitant. The child flicked behind the thin face and I could see, in jail, he had earned his name.

I nodded. He strode off, taking me on a winding course through the fat and the small, the short and tall of Banglatown, as we went to buy him his wrap.

Play Harry Potter ... and get sued

JK Rowling's lawyers hits the warpath against kiddies in India this week, according to The Scotsman newspaper.

A COMMUNITY group in India is being sued by JK Rowling for breach of copyright after it recreated Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for a religious festival.

The group is accused of erecting a huge structure in the shape of the fictional building, where Harry Potter learns magic.

Lawyers representing the Edinburgh-based author and Warner Brothers, who hold the rights in India, yesterday confirmed a petition had been filed in the Delhi High Court but refused to comment further.

Organisers said a mock steam train was also being constructed next to the set, which is intended to resemble the Hogwarts Express, as part of the Hindu festival of the Goddess Durga. It celebrates her killing a demon and the victory of good over evil. [conts]

Well, as a writer I'm all for protecting copyright. In this case, however, it seems the US legal approach (sue everything you bastards) has gone a little too 'full tilt' and will probably end up turning more of the sub-continent off the four-eyed wiz-boy rather than help sell his name.

Turkey Still Light Years Behind Europe


... for its treatment of journalists.

The media and writers are still being threatened with imprisonment for the archaic law of 'insulting Turkishness'. This coming hot on the heels of the 'controversy' by the House Foreign Affairs Committee finding that the massacre of hundreds of thousands (perhaps over a million) Armenians in 1915 was genocide.

Here's the latest bit of forward thinking from the Turkish prosecutors:

Turkish newspaper editor Arat Dink and newspaper owner Serkis Seropyan have been found guilty of ‘insulting Turkishness’ under the country's controversial penal code.

Dink, the son of the murdered journalist Hrant Dink, is executive editor of the Armenian weekly, Agos, in Istanbul. His father, Hrant Dink, former editor in chief of the same newspaper was murdered, allegedly by ultranationalist Ogun Samst in January this year. The murder trial is continuing.

Dink and Seropyan were charged for republishing an interview Hrant Dink gave to British press agency Reuters in July 2006. In the interview Dink referred explicitly to the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire that has never been recognised as genocide by the Turkish government.

Both newspaper men were also accused of the same crime for having published a petition in Agos entitled ‘A signature against Article 301’ designed to raise pressure for the repeal of the article. The men were found guilty under the penal code and sentenced to a year in prison but the sentences were commuted because they have not committed any previous crimes.


When my friends cry about freedom of speech and Big Brother, I tell them to visit our near-neighbours... Read the piece here. and see The Independent's Robert Fisk give his own take on the Armenian Holocaust here.

No Surprise, But No Excuse


Reading the UK Refugee Council's blog today, I caught the story carried in The Independent newspaper about failed asylum seekers being beaten up and routinely abused by private security firms tasked with their deportation.

One of the cases of alleged abuse is that of Armand Tchuibeu, a Cameroon national who claimed asylum in the United Kingdom in February 2000. His application was refused last year. He was then arrested and prepared for removal.

On 29 January 2007 he was collected from Tinsley House removal centre in East Sussex by four escort officers who drove him to Heathrow to catch a 9pm flight to Cameroon, as pictured on the front page from CCTV footage inside the van.

He claims handcuffs were applied to his right arm. Mr Tchuibeu says he told the guards that there was no need to handcuff him as he had no intention of obstructing his removal. But he alleges that officers started to manhandle him and, while his arms were held, one of the officers punched him in his ribs and on his neck and told him words to the effect "You will go to your fucking country today, we will fucking show you what illegal people deserve in our country". Another officer is alleged to have held his head down so they could apply a leg strap.

Eventually, Mr Tchuibeu convinced the escort officers he had been injured and the deportation was aborted. Mr Tchuibeu was taken to the Hillingdon Hospital where he was examined and treated. His knee was placed in a cylinder cast which he wore for four weeks.

Mr Tchuibeu appears to be far from an isolated case.

Milton Apollo Okello, 25, who was tortured by the Ugandan security services, claims that, after his asylum claim was rejected, he was frogmarched on to a plane and tied to his seat by British guards.

But when word came through that he had won an eleventh-hour reprieve, Mr Okello claims he was taken to a van and beaten and racially abused. Mr Okello said: "The driver opened the sliding door and I was pushed into the middle of the seat. Two of the officers got on one side of me and the others came in on the other side. Officer A then punched me hard in the face and he said "These black monkeys don't want to go back to their country ..."

Dr Frank Arnold, a volunteer doctor with the Medical Justice Network, who has examined more than 100 detained asylum-seekers, says many of the injuries suffered during removal are not taken seriously enough by the British immigration authorities.

He said: "Some of these injuries have been so bad that police officers who saw them appear to have been genuinely shocked. But it is my experience that medical staff who examine asylum-seekers when they are taken back into detention have greatly underestimated the severity of the injuries, including fractures and nerve damage from forcible traction on handcuffs."

It ain't liberal wishy-washy to say that when folks are removed - perhaps rightly, in some cases - they don't need a slap from some skinhead wannabe as part of their 'goodbye' to this country. I hope the goons that did this get their just deserts, and the companies employing them severely fined.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Not only (some) Christians are nuts...

Heard this sort of thing before?

...the subtle and not so subtle magic that opposes our deen and corrupts our communities is often overlooked due to its fictional classification. In addition, it shows the importance of guardianship, being concerned with our children’s time, their books, games etc. Finally, it exposes the evil contained in the Potter series, this lecture was prompted by the fascination of young Muslims in the community with Harry Potter, loving him, admiring him and wanting to be like him – all under the eyes of their parents, unaware or uninterested in what our beloved Muslim children are reading and watching.


It seems some Muslims, like certain US "charismatic" Christians, posting their videos onto the internet, are not comfortable with poor old Harry and his chums waving their wands in their kids' faces. So much so that there's an uproar building here.

Thank "god" there are no wars, famine, energy crisis, global warming or despotic regimes to worry about out there...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Paedophiles' brains 'different'


An utterly fascinating story popped up on the BBC website this morning. Apparently a new study has revealed that sexual abusers have different levels of brain activity to "normal" people.

A Yale University team found activity in parts of paedophiles' brains were lower than in other volunteers when shown adult, erotic material.

The journal Biological Psychiatry said this was the first real-time evidence of differences in thought patterns. And this raises the possibility of future drug treatments.

There is increasing evidence that problems in certain areas of the brain may contribute to feelings of sexual attraction to children.

In a few cases, patients with a brain tumour in a particular part of the brain have developed such feelings, only for them to go away when the tumour was removed.


A decade ago I carried out a series of investigations into abusers and those who have survived abuse. It is an incredibly difficult story to present: traumatic for those involved, and with much of society still ignorant that the majority of abuse takes place in the home environment, with carers, friends, uncles, babysitters and even siblings.

Many of us, the media and those twisting such issues for their own aim (such as the BNP, which ironically has had several abusers in its own ranks!) like to present abusers are foul-smelling men in macs, waiting in the park to ambush children. Far more likely to be a pillar of the community, unsuspected, hidden. And sadly such attitudes only serve to drive away abusers into the shadows, and force the model treatment programmes and centres to close down.

Let us hope this new research brings the light of hope into a very, very dark corner of humanity.

Fel Deeds - new fantasy story

Just part of one of my new fantasy short stories, possible book (fiction) material in the future.

Jungle. The constant croak of life, and decay. An eternal war of undergrowth and beast, insect and flesh.

Some said the mighty Attul began here. Others that it was a mere myth to frighten children. Empires lost and fallen, then risen again, 'ere the sun was young.

The figures paused. One spat, hawking a gob onto soil which sprang life wherever you trod. He flicked away a giant mosquito. His two companions' ghostly steeds snickered and pawed at the cloying air, unnerved even in death by what lay beyond.

They had fought and skulked their way north. Slain two of the wooded ones. Now their prey was near.

"To the tower, men," ordered the black-clad leader, sweltering inside his assassin's garb. "It is there my ... love awaits."

"And it's there she and her kind shall really learn what the Order means," smirked his comrade, a scarred undead shadow.

"Ahahaha, indeed she shall," agreed his other companion, shifting her robes and mask. She set spur to dead flesh. "Come, master keen-eye, let us be done with this filthy business."

"Aye ... cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war ..."


*

The ancient bridge rattled beneath the hooves. The leader gritted his teeth beneath his mask, and clung tighter to the dead beast, the juddering of bone grinding through his arse cheeks.

"That fucking whore," he whispered. "She'll pay for putting me through this ..."

Making their way cautiously through the creeping gloom of Ashtongue, leaving the jungle far behind, they scouted and moved beyond the patrols. His assassin colleagues slotted one or two over-curious guards, the grunts of surprise quickly silenced by a knife across the windpipe.

Breathless, they emerged from the dark forest. There, ahead, the tower emerged from the mists.

"Put on your disguise, my comrades. She knows I travel with mercenaries and will not be surprised. We do not want this wench knowing of the Doctor’s connection to tonight's fel deeds."

He signaled the dismount.

*

"It is I, Lar, Maiisha my love... do not be startled."

His words were whispered honey with acid menace.

"Come closer, my dear, come to your dear old lover boy ... that's right, don't worry about my friends here, you recognise the staunch and loyal comrades of the Order when you see them?"

She sensed, if not saw, the grin stretch uncomfortably wider behind his mask. It looked like Lar, it sounded like him. Her legs trembled in anticipation. Like a schoolgirl she felt – he had really returned!

"Oh Lar, Lar..." she wept, starting to move forward.

He opened his arms and embraced her. His leathers smelled of damp and mildew, of rot.

“Ouch! That hurts,” she giggled. “But I like it, you little tease!” She flicked his nose with her finger, looking up into the brooding one-eyed face. What she saw there was cold, hard. She reached up to touch his scar.

“Lar? My love? Is anything the matter? I came here as soon as I received word. I knew - just knew - you didn’t really love Sie. It was hard losing you, and Laertes, to the new Order. But now ... now we can be together again? Yes? Surely now ...” she whispered, leaning in close to his ear and breathing hot.

“Get away from me you foul thing!”

Lar shoved her roughly aside. She stumbled and struggled to keep her balance. Her cat growled and above, a bird rose in alarm. A soft “swoosh” moved past her.

“B-beloved? Why do you push me aside?” she cried, a tear trembling down her cheek. Furiously she wiped it away with a soft hand, adjusting the expensive silks she donned for this special occasion. Thank the gods her clan had no idea of this meeting – she’d be punished if they did. Bah! Let them, she thought. Shoving doubts aside she moved in closer to the Nil’Hume again.

“Lar, Lar, my brave bladesman,” she crooned. “I know you’re upset at the changes ... but I forgive you. I know you did what you had to do ... only following orders from Laer-”

“Shut up bitch!”

Something heavy crashed into the back of her skull. Blinding, furious pain flashed through her eyes and she thought she’d be sick there and then. She hung, woozy like a punch-drunk boxer, trying to stay on her feet. She heard breathing close by...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Celebrities Reply to You-Ask


We have nothing to fear from an Islamic caliphate...

... at least according to the leading spokesman for radical Islamic group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in many countries (though curiously not in the UK).

That is just one of the several answers that have come back from a recent debate I've helped to host on Muslims in the UK.

Some of you may know that I've been contributing to the intriguing new "You-Ask" (Yoosk) website. It's a place where those of us minnows of the world can ask questions, directly, of those in positions of power and influence.

It's been a learning curve - Ken Livingstone's people insisting his name and image is removed from any debates, for example (odd) - but also a success for the first of my debates, which as noted was held on Muslims in the UK.

We've had responses in from right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens, from the Respect Party councillor and Birmingham mosque spokesperson Salma Yaqoob, and Jamal Harwood who speaks for the Hizb (responses to come in from the head of the UK's largest Islamic group next).

Yoosk is asking for more opinions, more suggestions for debates, more feedback and more questions for celebrities, politicians and those in power and influence. Head over and check it out.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Fear and the Eagle

My friend Deepa posts some interesting thoughts in her latest blog - how, in the aftermath of September 11, America sacrificed itself to a fear it never held during the Cold War days.

How did America remain steady during the Iron Curtain threat? How did it continue to prosper and expand, send a man to the Moon, launch countless advances ... yet now spends ridiculously huge sums on a "war on terror" that as yet shows little sign of end. Or, indeed, success.

Iraq remains ungovernable after the shambles of post-invasion planning and corruption (both within the US CPA and the government since), and Afghanistan is witnessing a Taliban resurgence.

I think Deepa might have simplified the message about how ordinary Americans felt in the '50 and 60s/70s - what about Korea, Vietnam, also Cuba '63? - and I would argue that that "fear" mindset has been present in America long before the war even. Back to the isolationist days. Now with its new global role, the US has a responsibility to exercise power for the entire world community ... lest it face the very punishment it fears once other nations begin surpassing it.

Deepa Kandaswamy's blog

Monday, September 10, 2007

Neo-Nazis caught in Israel


Almost unbelievable.

The major news networks are carrying a story this week that tells of a Neo-Nazi gang operating inside Israel. Eight Russian emigrés videoed attacks on drug addicts, synagogues and religious Jews, with the 19-year-old leader telling police:

"I won't ever give up. I was a Nazi and will stay a Nazi, until we kill them all I will not rest."

He even said he would never have children, because his grandfather "was a half Jewboy".

The irony is that an Arab Israeli member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) has said Israeli laws allow much more extensive rights to Russians - often with little connection to Israel, other than a desire for economic migration - than it did to Arabs who had been living in the country for generations.

The case is being commented on around the world, not least for the shock and outrage it has raised among Jews both inside and outside Israel.

Read the BBC account here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Muslims – Can They Integrate?

To coincide with the launch of the new web service, Yoosk (You-Ask), I am asking viewers of the site to put their questions to four experts on the future of Muslims in the UK.

Can Muslims ever integrate? Are they getting a raw deal? Just why have they attracted such negative press – their fault or Islamophobia? And what should be done about it?

In a crowded island with little room for separation, the tides of change are swinging fast. Have your say at the Yoosk debate.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

We moan about floods but...


Acres sunk beneath bloated rivers ... sewage floating beside houses ... drinking water runs out ... billions in damages.

The recent July floods in the UK have seen unprecedented anguish and pain for residents living in the north and middle of England. Dire warnings of global warming and finger wagging (and worse) at slow political response have seen the media and country focus like never before on the fury of Mother Nature.

But spare a thought, if you will, the people of China. Hundreds have died there these last weeks, during the worst flooding ever on record.

The recent floods in China have already displaced some 4 to 5 million people - twice as many people as the Darfur conflict and about as many as Iraq. Experts fear they may take years to recover.

More than 150 people died last week alone, state media said, in what some reports call China's worst rain since records began.

It is not just China, of course. Floods have battered various parts of the world from central England to Sudan to Pakistan. But in China, as always, the numbers are massive.

"According to the government, around 200 million people have been affected and 4 to 5 million have been evacuated," Quinghui Gu, regional disaster coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies (IFRC), told AlertNet. "There is great need there and the government is doing as much as they can."

Read how the rest of the world lives - see the story up at AlertNet.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Fewer Muslims support suicide bombers

Mother Jones, the investigative magazine based in San Francisco, reports a Washington Post story on the results of a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey.

The survey showed that most of the world’s Muslims reject suicide bombings and violence against civilians. The poll, conducted between April 6 and May 29, surveyed 45,239 people in 46 countries.

Not surprisingly, Palestinians were the most enthusiastic supporters of suicide bombings: 70 percent of them responded that such attacks are “sometimes” or “often” justified.

The countries showing the least amount of support? Egypt (eight percent) and Pakistan (nine percent). The survey also suggested that, in many countries, enthusiasm for suicide attacks has fallen sharply since 2002.

Read the full report here.

War Photography - what does it take?


Ever wondered what it must be like to live out of a rucksack, hopping from continent to continent, like the war correspondents of old (nicknamed the "fireman")?

My old friend and colleague, Alex Smailes, is interviewed here in this stunningly-presented piece about his life as a conflict photographer. Alex and I always promised to work on a joint story, though somehow never got round to it - despite mutual contacts and interests.

Still, you never know... Alex, mated, hope the Trinidad life is still agreeing with you! I recommend his site for all aspiring photo journalists.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

English Patient's brother reviews Homeland


I just discovered a new (old) review of my tome, Homeland. It was written by the philanthropist and writer, Sir Christopher Ondaatje, co-owner of The Literary Review and brother of the brilliant novelist, Michael Ondaatje.

In a book strangely reminiscent of George Orwell's early non-fiction (The Road to Wigan, Homage to Catalonia) Nick Ryan's Homeland is the story of one man's journey into the heartlands of extremism undertaken during a gruelling six-year voyage.

Ryan met, interviewed, and in some cases lived with members of the extreme right in a dozen different countries. He examines this far right community, from the vilest new-nazi gangs to some prominent politicians. He travels across Europe and the USA to find out how these extremists share information, ideology, and contacts, and how they are linked occasionally by business interest. However, Homeland is not simply a story of undercover intrigue. It is a powerful personal odyssey and a social commentary, written as literary reportage. The twists and turns of the journey leave the reader no less exhausted than the man who came to write about it.

"I was motivated by one simple question: why?" says Ryan, talking of his desire to understand the men (and women) fuelling the rise of the extreme right. In the first few pages of Homeland, he admits to starting as a "classic wishy-washy liberal", yet by the end of his quest he is left a more bitter and cynical person, paying a price for his obsessive curiosity...

Read the full review here.

Whilst I'm at it, here an American woman gives her opinion of the book...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Growing unease over student's death in Germany


If ever a story called to be written, it was this one: the mysterious death of Jeremiah Duggan, a Jewish student who was found dead on a German autobahn one cold winter's morning in 2003.

The case involves the shadowy Schiller Institute, run by Lyndon LaRouche (or see strongly critical pieces on him), but the German authorities have been dragging their feet about reopening the case. A British inquest says Duggan's death was not suicide; German police disagree.

Now a group of German MPs have joined Duggan's family in arguing for the case to be reopened.

This from The Guardian story:

Mr Duggan, who was Jewish, was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris and travelled to Germany for an anti-war protest run by the Schiller Institute. He went to Wiesbaden, in central Germany, with a group of young men selling the newspaper Nouvelle Solidarite, a French version of a newspaper published by the group's leader Lyndon LaRouche, an American rightwing extremist condemned by leading Jewish organisations as an anti-semite.

Mr Duggan knew nothing of the group's background until he heard anti-semitic comments being made at the conference. He rang his parents in London to say he was "in deep trouble". Hours later he was found dead having been struck by three vehicles on a motorway. The Schiller Institute has strongly denied any involvement in his death or that any crime took place.


A murky plot, indeed.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Few imams in UK born here

Just a quick post as I dash out the door:

News from a report for the BBC that only 8% of imams - the prayer leaders in a mosque - practising in the UK are actually born here.

Lots of argument and debate about why this matters. Catch the BBC report and I'll discuss more on my return...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

London Fringe Literary Festival

Yup, for all the bookies out there (or for those who can read...), London is staging not only a literary festival, but also a 'fringe lit' event.

Luminaries such as Doris Lessing, Brian Aldiss, Ghada Karmi, one of the world’s most renowned commentators on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and many others, cutting edge as well as lesser known, are appearing in all sorts of nooks and crannies across the capital. Not just one for the Guardian readers, before my well-known chums intercede and start making their jokes.

Visit the site here, the event takes place until mid-July I believe.

Damn, I wish I'd been to the boozing event...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

1977 'Clash' anniversary t-shirts


Three decades ago 'The Clash' released 'White Riot' and as Billy Bragg puts it " the flame they lit is still burning bright."

My friends over at Philosophy Football are celebrating Clash Culture with four unique summer designs inspired by the lyrics and graphics of the band. Part of the profits will be donated to Billy Bragg's Jail Guitar Doors initiative, like the shirts also inspired by the Clash.

From Paul smashing his guitar on the re-take of 'London Calling' and the message 'Hate and War' that was spray-painted on Joe's bolier suit, to the words of Garageland as pointed today as they were back in 1977 and English Civil War, the band's pointed anti-militarism anthem.

Four shirts for nostalgists or those new to The Clash, available in sizes S-XXL, plus skinny-rib. At www.philosophyfootball.com.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Another secret CIA prison?

"At the end of last April, I was transferred to another prison located 15 minutes driving from my previous Bizerte Civil prison. I was totally shocked when I found myself in a secret CIA detention where other detainees were also held in containers."

These are the words of Ramzi Bettibi, who has smuggled a letter to the outside world about another secret CIA detention facility (routinely denied by the USA). Bettibi was arrested on 15 March 2005 at the internet café in Tunisia where he worked. In prison he is frequently subjected to torture, which the authorities hope will make him collaborate with the State Security services.

“Bettibi should be freed because the government never proved that he had a criminal intent to threaten others or to incite violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch in a statement published last year. “Under these circumstances, cutting and pasting on the Internet should not be a crime,” she added.

A new form of politics?

Mother Jones reckons that the 2.0 web age will bring about a new form of politics (in the US). Do you agree?

More than 200 journalists exiled since 2001

Eritrean journalist Milkeas Mihreteab narrowly escaped arrest when his private newspaper office was raided by the authorities six years ago. He crossed local borders on foot before getting passage to the United States, where he was eventually granted asylum. In the U.S., Mihreteab has worked at a coffee shop and as a security guard, but never as a journalist. And with more than a dozen journalists imprisoned in Eritrea, his prospects for going home are grim.

Mihreteab is just one of 243 cases of journalists forced into exile in the past six years because of their work, according to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Launched on World Refugee Day (20 June), "Journalists in Exile" found that of the 243 journalists, more than half of them came from just five countries: Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Colombia and Uzbekistan. At least three journalists a month flee their home countries to escape threats of violence, prison or harassment, and only one in seven ever returns home.

In a profession castigated for its pandering to celebrity and intrusion, another, much darker side exists: the story of many non-western journalists struggling for freedom of expression. Struggling, even, for a right to life. Just look at Iraq, where each month members of the media lay down their lives in a maelstrom of killings and sectarian politics. Even high-profile reporters, well-respected men such as the BBC's Alan Johnston in Gaza, are not immune. Ten years after my travels in Algeria, there is little sign that the "true" media, as I like to think of them, have things any easier.

CPJ's report "Journalists in Exile" includes a statistical analysis, an audio report from a Colombian refugee and a multimedia slideshow.

Monday, June 25, 2007

My book reviews


Anyone who wants to read my book reviews for The Express, a right-wing tabloid British newspaper, can view several of them online.

Here's a recent review of the excellent Rainbow's End by Lauren St John:

It is hard, now, to think of a Zimbabwe before Robert Mugabe – a time before mass unemployment, chaos, beatings and rampant inflation.

Once a school teacher, then resistance leader and national hero, Mugabe has brought a country and people to ruin and uses torture and murder to keep a desperate hold on power.

The Zimbabwe – or Rhodesia – that Lauren St John recalls in the highly evocative Rainbow’s End is far different to that of Mr Mugabe’s modern-day “Heart of Darkness”. Hers is a world of striking colours and childhood experiences, of the African bush and wildlife, almost idyllic, in which the civil war of the mid-Seventies and massive changes brought about by independence surface like a dark dream.


Another of my recent reviews (this seems to have come after a site redesign by the paper) concerns the eclectic, moving and disturbing account of childhood and his relationship with his dying mother by Donald Antrim, in The Afterlife. Read the review here.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What happens when you try and expose paedophiles in America?

I just read this amazing tale from commentator Rory O'Connor on the annual media bash in Manhattan. (The piece was linked from the US website, MediaChannel, which monitors our illustrious profession.

It concerns the jaw-dropping tale of what happened when a little community paper tried to expose wide-spread sexual abuse carried out by Scout and Mormon church leaders in a small community in America. Yes, only in America, folks!

Book rip-off?

Few in the general public seem to know about the behind-the-scenes activity in the book trade. Whilst an author slaves away for months, perhaps years on a manuscript, often in his or her spare time, for the vast majority of writers their typical income is 33% less than the national average salary. A study found that the top 10% of authors are earning 50% of the total income from writing.

Forget the million-dollar deals and Hollywood tie-ups, for most that remains a pipe dream and even if a title is "optioned" (to be made into a film), it's usually for a very small sum and most of the times doesn't get made. A bit like the example this guy mentions. Though for one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a long-held option is finally being made for theatrical release.

But suppose you've written the magnum opus, done the trick of finding an agent (half the battle to getting published) and landed a commission from a publisher. What next? Well, here in the UK, with 120,000 books coming out each year, most likely quiet oblivion (Wikipedia says 200,000+ but I'm not sure of that figure). Unless you're extremely luck and get word-of-mouth out there on the street, your mighty Hemingway prose is most likely to disappear to obscurity. Unless you are writing one of the new books for people that don't read (i.e. celebrity biogs) or your publisher shells out a ton of £$ for space inside a supermarket or book chain.

In a confidential letter to publishers seen by The Times of London, Waterstone’s has set out what it expects them to pay if they want their books to be well promoted in its network of more than 300 stores this Christmas.

The most expensive package, available for only six books and designed to “maximise the potential of the biggest titles for Christmas”, costs £45,000 per title. The next category down offers prominent display spots at the front of each branch to about 45 new books for £25,000. Inclusion on the Paperbacks of the Year list costs up to £7,000 for each book, while an entry in Waterstone’s Gift Guide, with a book review, is a relative snip at £500.

Bargain, eh? Thing is, most of the trade knows this happens. It's just you, the public, don't. So when you see that "recommended" tag, perhaps you should think twice before buying. Unless, of course, you've already abandoned the written word...

Friday, June 15, 2007

Fantasy writing longlist out


The longlist for this year's British Fantasy Award is out. It includes Joe Abercombie, represented by my agent, whose The Blade Itself: Book One Of The First Law is up for the title.

Abercombie (read an interview with him here) has written two titles so far in this trilogy and both I can heartily recommend to 'mature' fantasy readers. Quality stuff.

The Death of WoW?


The MMORPG known as World of Warcraft has redefined the online games market. With a reach of some 8m customers worldwide, and an interactive world into which you can immerse yourself and meet other 'real life' gamers, it has paved the way for (in some cases) entirely new lives in a virtual universe.

Whilst the jokes are out on gamers and geeks, as parodied by shows such as South Park, the money men know which side the bread is buttered and there is a slew of other games and worlds already out there or in the planning. Not just hack 'n' slash, nor sci-fi shoot 'em ups, but virtual worlds such as Second Life, highly popular among women. Some have even been pandered to by the fashion world.

However, since WoW's owner Blizzard Entertainment (in turn owned by French giant Vivendi) launched its latest expansion, The Burning Crusade, grumbles have arisen a plenty about the "grind" factor inside the giant MMO: go and kill 'x' 10 times, collect 'y' 100 times, etc. And etc. And etc. So much so that one site is now talking about the decline of WoW - although not, as such, the decline of the genre. Others have joined in. (There have even been semi-academic papers written on this trend.) I could probably agree with this (joke?) description of WoW on your IQ, however.

Virtual worlds, and sometimes virtual addiction, are redefining the way many of us spend our leisure time, socialise, meet others and interact. Some people do mighty strange things in order to progress in the games. I myself dabble in WoW (as written previously on this blog) and know Norwegians, Russians, Brits, Irish, Swedes, Czech, Spanish, Portuguese, even someone living in Japan. Whilst WoW's grind may be the slow death of the MMO giant, it seems likely more pretenders will soon jump into its place.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Great tips for journalists

Former tabloid newspaper editor Roy Greenslade carries some amazing (read: funny) tips for modern journalists in his blog on The Guardian website.

Taken from Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press, I particularly like no. 1:

1. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Then, after the afflicted become comfortable, afflict them again. This should provide an endless supply of news stories.


And no. 3:

3. When deciding which tragedies deserve the most prominent coverage, use this simple math: 10,000 foreigners = one cute white American chick.


Who ever said we were a cynical lot?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Brawling East End


I have just discovered one of my foreign (non-UK) pieces, published a couple of years ago in the Canadian literary magazine, The Walrus.

I present The Brawling East End for your entertainment.

London—Just over a century ago, a young, stranded American sailor stepped out into the foul East London air: “We rolled along through miles of brick and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery.” Published in 1903, Jack London’s devastating The People of the Abyss exposed the terrible poverty at the heart of the British Empire, in a district that over the years has spawned Charles Dickens’s Fagin (based on an infamous Jewish fence), Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, Oscar Wilde’s opium-smoking Dorian Gray, and more recently, Monica Ali’s Nazneen, a young Muslim woman struggling with her arranged marriage in the novel Brick Lane...[cont'd]


images © Simon Wheatley of Magnum Photos

Refugee Week blog launched

It's Refugee Week this week, and the UK's Refugee Council has asked those with first-hand experience of refugee life to take part in a special blog.

The first guest editor is an artist - Margareta Kern - who explores whether labels such as 'refugee art' or refugee artist' are a help or hindrance.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Bromance? Incisive Guardian journalism... or load of old crap?

In his piece in today's Guardian G2, Nirpal Dhaliwal argues that every straight man needs a "bromance" - a close but non sexual relationship between two men (a blend of brother and romance) - and that friendships with straight men fall apart due to rivalry.

As someone who shared a house with gay mates, who had gay landlords for 10 years and is well acquainted with Brighton (chortle away if you live up north) I thought 'what's news about having a gay mate'? Unless, perhaps, you are one of the strict Muslims I have met or a card-carrying member of a political party which calls gays 'these disgusting creatures'.

Then this fellow argues he's been snogging his mates as well "and enjoyed it", and I thought: 'well, wtf fella, maybe you should just choose which way you're swinging, and not write this load of old bollocks c/o Farringdon's Finest'.

"One was an American film director, who invited me to a festival in Turin where I hooked up with a fabulous, cabaret-singing New York drag queen... But they didn't turn me on ... Bromances are the future for men in this country."

As Katherine Tait's granny would say, "what a load of old shite". There's friendships, with gay or straight friends, and there's sexual relationships. I think this guy is just over-analysing his identity issues. Shame The Grorniad still pays for crap like this.

Singing with Gorgeous George


Tony Blair is in full swing. His mouth is beaming, the teeth huge and alarmingly bright. The guitar judders, the grin – more like a grimace – stretches wider on a face ruddy from the cold. He launches himself at the mike.

"Warrr!... Huurr!..." he screams "...what is it good for! Absolutely ..."

"...nuthin'!" choruses the reply.

"Ah-hahhhn...Yeah, yeah, yeah!" Tony cries back, reaching an improbable high.

Under a bleak December sky, the backing singers swap glances, shivering in their skimpy skirts and cursing silently beneath their breath. I am crouched discretely behind, holding their hems, preventing a Marilyn-moment appearing on camera. Families in a nearby tower block, and passers-by walking below, stop to point and stare.

The former Prime Minister is surrounded by his old college band, Ugly Rumours. A gaggle of supporters (you could hardly call them "groupies"), including extras hired for the video shoot, shouts encouragement between takes. Tony takes his cue, and bounces like a teenager going cold turkey on Ritalin.

Just an hour earlier, before we ascended this rooftop in central London (an attempt to copy The Beatles final gig in 1969), I had seen him rehearse his lines with ferocious concentration. It appears he is putting as much effort into miming Edwin Starr's classic as one of his great political speeches.

Suddenly, a bearded policeman approaches across the cluttered roofspace. Picking carefully between the skylights, he walks with a Dixon of Dock Green swagger.

"Anthony Charles Linton Blair," he rumbles in a Highlands twang, thrusting his face close to Tony. "I am arresting you on the charge of spreading Ugly Rumours which have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world..."

Just for a moment, all is silent. A lone cheer carries from the student digs above us. Then as a WPC (who looks decidely like Mr Blair's sister-in-law, Lauren Booth) snaps a pair of handcuffs on the astonished politician, the copper 'corpses'.

"Cut!"

The director glares. The singers crack up in fits of laughter, reaching for cigarettes and shawls. Patrick Alan, the lead singer of The Drifters who has been hired to lay down the track, scowls and stamps his feet.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." says George Galloway, covering his smile with a gloved hand. "Unfortunately, Mr Blair has thrown himself off the building," chuckles the MP for Bethnal Green & Bow. Recovering his composure, he pats Tony on the arm.

"All right son, shall we go again?"

***

So begins one of my encounters with "Gorgeous" George Galloway MP, perhaps the world's most famous anti-war figure. Certainly beloved by one billion Muslims, if the man himself is to be believed...

Yes, I actually took part in the video made for Galloway's re-release of Edwin Starr's classic song, "War". I'm an extra in a crowd scene (very Ricky Gervais this, eh?). The internet single, recorded by The Drifters, hit the charts when released earlier this year.

Take a look and listen or here for the YouTube version. Spot yours truly...

I shall post a link to the piece on my own site soon.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Watching Darfur

After my post about the cringe-worthy display by the British neo-Nazi Mark Collett, I received an email from one of this site's watchers.

Ironically, it had nothing to do with our pathetic misfits and weirdoes but, instead, with the terrible conflict destroying the western part of Sudan: Darfur.

The video link I was sent was short, silent and focused on the current G8 summit in Germany. Not many of you will know this, but for over a year I was a communications consultant for the refugee charity Ockenden International. I ran their website and much of their communications materials, as well as pushing them occasionally into the limelight of press.

Sudan was one of Ockenden's major concerns. It is a tremendously complex situation, as you can see outlined in this interview with one of their senior Sudan people and background stories I wrote. The situation is far more than Darfur: the entire country is massive, comprised of many peoples and tribes, religions and rich mineral wealth. It is a massive post-colonial hangover... and like everything else, for many years I have been forced on the defensive when travelling overseas, defending the actions of an empire that sucked up my ancestors (rebellious Irish) as it did three-quarters of the world.

But enough of that. The Darfur video seemed timely, given that Amnesty International has now launched a new satellite viewing service of the region: Eyes on Darfur.

Says Amnesty boss, Irene Khan: "Despite four years of outrage over the death and destruction in Darfur, the Sudanese government has refused worldwide demands and a U.N. resolution to send peacekeepers to the region. Darfur needs peacekeepers to stop the human rights violations. In the meantime, we are taking advantage of satellite technology to tell President al-Bashir that we will be watching closely to expose new violations. Our goal is to continue to put pressure on Sudan to allow the peacekeepers to deploy and to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable civilians on the ground in Darfur."

The idea is for us, the outside world, to keep an eye over 12 vulnerable villages: to make sure the (unstrustworthy?) Sudanese government and its allies don't get up to further mischief. But as anyone who watches the region will tell you, the rebels fighting the government are also split; also play power politics; and half these 'wars' are over control of mineral riches and power, and possibly a future 'split' Sudan.

The war between north and south was finally sorted - for now. Will western Sudan ever be reconciled to the centre though?

Anyone interested in further Amnesty stuff can check out the new CD "Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur," a collection of iconic John Lennon songs recorded by best-selling artists to support its efforts on Darfur. To learn more about the project, go to www.instantkarma.org

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

In-joke about Olympics logo


So, this morning the BBC News and website teams made much ado about the new London 2012 Olympics logo. Much comment has centred on the banality of the design. "My kid could do it etc" type of thing, along with many suggestions.

As you will see from this clip, BBC London news flashed up various viewers' suggestions for alternatives. Take a close look at the first image they show.

Now take a look at this website.

The internet message boards are having a good old chuckle at this wind-up it seems. The image has now been removed from the BBC site.

Bizarre BNP video


I just found this link for a rather strange encounter between the British National Party (BNP)'s head of publicity, Mark Collett (who seems to enjoy bearing his chest to strangers), crying on camera as he's being intimidated by other far-right extremists.

As well as being a rising star of the BNP, Collett is famous for telling a Channel 4 documentary maker, during the filming of Young, Nazi and Proud:

"I'd never say this on camera, the Jews have been thrown out of every country including England. It's not just persecution. There's no smoke without fire," he declares.


I leave you to figure this one out for yourself. Confused? I am. Maybe this is how Gordon and Tony deal with one another...

with thanks to Kirklees Unity for breaking the original story

Monday, June 04, 2007

Child porn charges against America's leading neo-Nazi


You just couldn't make this stuff up... Strom's case and personality sounds similar to several of the people I met during the research for 'Homeland'.

A new court filing reveals sordid details of the government's case against long-time neo-Nazi leader Kevin Alfred Strom, who was charged earlier this year with possession of child pornography, witness tampering and "enticing" a young girl.

Strom, 50, was for almost 20 years a deputy to William Pierce, leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance. After Pierce's death, Strom broke away in 2005 to form his own radical group, National Vanguard. But he was arrested near his Virginia home last January, and National Vanguard had collapsed by late March.

The latest blow to Strom came in a government document filed May 24 in response to a motion from Strom's attorneys to sever one count of a seven-count superceding indictment. Among the graphic allegations the filing contained:

  • The girl Strom was charged with "enticing," who was 9 and 10 years old during the period in question, was followed by Strom to her school and home. When her parents, distressed by Strom's attentions, changed schools, Strom found her new school and class schedule on the Internet.

  • Strom composed a sonnet for the girl, identified only as "A.A." "My love for her is not a sin … I'll be showered with the kisses of [A.A.] …. I will marry [A.A.]." The sonnet, Strom wrote on his computer, was "to be sung to the tune of 'Here We Come a-Wassailing.'"

  • Strom was surprised by his wife Elisha (who was not identified by name in the court filing) on Sept. 8, 2006, while apparently masturbating nude in front of a computer while looking at photos of young girls. Although he ran away from his wife, "she was able to observe that he was sexually aroused." Strom later admitted to a social worker that he has "pleasured himself" while looking at nude photos.

  • Strom had "hundreds" of images of young girls, both clothed and unclothed, in sexually suggestive positions, along with outright pornography. Many of the photos depicted girls similar in appearance to "A.A."

  • There seems to be a photo floating around the Internet right now, showing Strom and British National Party leader Nick Griffin holding hands...

    Source: Southern Poverty Law Center

    Red-haired family forced to move

    Just when I thought humanity (or is it only my fellow Brits) couldn't get any more stupid, or pathetic:

    A Newcastle family claim they have been forced from two homes by thugs who have targeted them over their ginger hair.

    Kevin and Barbara Chapman say they and their four children, aged between 10 and 13, have endured years of taunts, smashed windows and violence.

    ...

    The family also say they have endured their homes being daubed in graffiti.

    Mr Chapman said: "The abuse we get is unbelievable. It started more than three years ago, when the kids started getting bullied by lads over the colour of their hair.

    "They've been punched and kicked and thrown over a hedge. Every time they go out these gangs get to them."

    Source: BBC

    Are Teletubbies gay? Poland investigates

    Poland's conservative government took its drive to curb what it sees as homosexual propaganda to the small screen, taking aim at Tinky Winky and the other Teletubbies.

    Ewa Sowinska, government-appointed children rights watchdog, told a local magazine published on Monday she was concerned the popular BBC children's show promoted homosexuality.

    She said she would ask psychologists to advise if this was the case. In comments reminiscent of criticism by the late US evangelist Jerry Falwell, made back in 1999, she was quoted as saying:

    "I noticed (Tinky Winky) has a lady's purse, but I didn't realize he's a boy. At first I thought the purse would be a burden for this Teletubby . . . Later I learned that this may have a homosexual undertone."

    Poland's rightist government has upset human rights groups and drawn criticism within the European Union by apparent discrimination against homosexuals. Polish Education Minister Roman Giertych has proposed laws sacking teachers who promote "homosexual lifestyle" and banning "homo-agitation" in schools.

    But in a sign that the government wants to distance itself from Sowinska's comments, Parliamentary Speaker Ludwig Dorn said he had warned her against making public comments "that may turn her department into a laughing stock".

    The 10-year-old Teletubbies, which features four rotund, brightly coloured characters loved by children around the world, became a target of religious conservatives after Falwell suggested Tinky Winky could be homosexual.

    source: Stuff

    'Wear a veil or we will behead you'

    It is a world turning in on itself. As the artillery thunders, and militants vie for power with the old guard, faith and religion are twisting into power politics in the tiny, rife-torn state of Palestine.

    The Righteous Swords of Islam, a splinter Islamist group in the Gaza Strip, has warned that it would strike women TV presenters at the official Palestine TV station with 'an iron fist and swords' for refusing to wear a veil on camera.

    'It is disgraceful that the women working for the official Palestinian media are competing with each other to display their charms,' it said in a leaflet distributed in Gaza at the weekend. The fringe group threatened to 'slaughter' the women for corrupting Palestinian morals. 'The management and workers at Palestine TV should know,' it warned, 'that we are much closer to them than they think. If necessary, we will behead and slaughter to preserve the spirit and morals of our people.'

    About half the women TV journalists wear the traditional hijab head covering, but all show their faces and wear makeup. They mounted a vigil yesterday outside the Gaza City office of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, demanding protection and respect.


    Aside from the crazy, feudal, tribal and controlling nature of this group's statement (which is more an indication of the breakdown of Palestinian society than it is about the necessity or not of being veiled), debate has long been held over the exact nature of the covering of women.

    Indeed, according to some western scholars, there is confusion over the nature of the hijab covering itself. John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, writes that the customs of veiling and seclusion of women in early Islam were assimilated from the conquered Persian and Byzantine societies and then later on they were viewed as appropriate expressions of Quranic norms and values. The Qur'an does not stipulate veiling or seclusion; on the contrary, it tends to emphasize the participation of religious responsibility of both men and women in society.

    Other scholars have written that the Qur'an doesn't require women to wear veils; rather, it was a social habit picked up with the expansion of Islam. In fact, since it was impractical for working women to wear veils, "A veiled woman silently announced that her husband was rich enough to keep her idle."

    But, as with Afghanistan and other areas where the norms of life have broken down, people are turning to more 'certain' rules of life amidst the chaos of war. The only trouble is that opens the doors for extremists (men, always men) to move in.

    Friday, May 18, 2007

    Forgotten Soldiers

    The end of April marked the anniversary of the fall of Vietnam. 30th April 1975 and the last helicopters lifted from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

    Yet it was not just Americans, or Vietnamese, fighting in that war. There were others. People who have suffered since, unacknowledged. The Montagnards, the indigenous people of central Vietnam, have suffered extensively since the conflict (many had sided with the American forces).

    In addition, friends of mine were caught up in that war. Friends like Mike, a former Special Forces sergeant with the Australian army, but originally a British emigré. Now dead, Mike's words bear the stark reality of war - and a warning for politicians who beat the hot-headed drums of conflict. Here are Mike's words:

    “The one thing that sticks in my mind, even 28 years after the event, is the very first time I killed somebody. And that person was a 14-year-old girl.”

    “OK, she was trying to kill me at the time, but after it was all over, and I’d put about 60 rounds into her, everything – my schooling, my religious beliefs, and all the beliefs my step parents had tried to instil in me – went down the drain. Because I’d committed in my mind, as a human being, the ultimate sin – taking someone else’s life.”

    “I never ever thought it would happen that quick. It shouldn’t have happened that quick, because we weren’t in an ‘operational’ situation. We were supposed to be on an ‘acclimatisation’ patrol. And we were in the wrong place at the wrong time and so were those people...and she was trying to kill me.”

    “I just let rip and at that stage thought I was opening fire on a soldier. But then you see something roll down in front of you and you realise what you’ve done.”

    “First comes the stillness. You’ve been moving at an incredible rate, even though it seems like slow motion, and then nothing , but nothing, is said for about two or three seconds. Suddenly, you get up. With that, two things happen – you’re ecstatic that you survived; then you walk up to what you’ve done – the incredible destruction you’ve visited on another human being – and emotionally, you’re dead.”

    “You look down upon this ‘thing’, the body, as a lump of meat or an object. Until you have to touch it. Then you see something. Like with this girl. When I rolled her over her long hair came down. And then all of a sudden the feelings start coming in and you cannot help but think ‘what have I done...what have I done?’ Then you think ‘Christ, are they really the enemy or just innocent people going through?’”

    “Then you look for the weapon and you find it, and there’s a great sigh of relief. After that, you think – because of your upbringing – ‘this person had a family and friends’ and you have now stopped that. Then it hits you and you start shaking...it took me a long time to get over it. I was shaking and howling like a baby for weeks afterwards.”

    “Why? Because it was a girl for a start; a kid secondly; thirdly and most importantly, everything that I had been taught in my life, morally, just went down the drain. Totally. In one instant. The whole thing lasted maybe 20 – 25 seconds. And that 25 seconds changed my life completely.”

    “They shouldn’t have been there. But they were, it happened, and what more can you say? After the first time, you don’t shake anymore.”


    ***

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    Back to Jack

    Something I'm working on now, non-fiction...

    Back to Jack

    I thought of them all – the old Jews I had met, the villains, the gangsters, the grime boys, the hijabis, George's folk, the street preachers, even the homeless I had served in the shelters.

    I thought of George Orwell, and the street "toms"; the sounds and smells creeping through the thin walls of the bedsit I shared with Kuwaitis and Pakistanis. That creeping sense of surrealism as I sat drinking in a bar opposite a masjid or listening to the whispers of Kaddish [prayer for the dead] in one of the last remaining shuls [synagogues], nestled down the road from The Blind Beggar, where gangster George Cornell was shot by the Krays.

    It was here that I had smoked shishe [water pipe] with once-feared men turned-holy, watching old Tower House, "that notorious doss house" – in which both Jack London and Orwell, Stalin and Trotsky had spent nights in rope beds – now turning from crack den into glorious apartments.

    And like Jack those many moons ago, I smiled.

    After all, this was Limehouse. The renovated wharves and riverside townhouses hid horrors, ancient and modern, which the polite "west" of town had ever tried to ignore. Bustling Banglatown and Monica Ali were but a mile or two away, but there were worlds which the rich and comfortable barely sensed, places which made them quicken their pace for a few steps, after which they would shake their heads and slow again, laughing at their own fears.

    Conrad's "adventurers and the settlers; kings' ships and the ships of men on 'Change; captains, admirals, the dark "interlopers" of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned "generals" of East India fleets" may have been long gone and money had certainly poured into their wake. The glass and steel on the waterfront alone spoke of that; the German-made cars in underground garages and the sight of expensive waterside bistros overlooking each other testament to some change at least.

    The Prospect of Whitby where he once drank was just down the road at Wapping, but the rest of Dickens' world seemed to have disappeared, too. In Our Mutual Friend, Limehouse was a "squalid maze of streets and alleys of miserable houses let out into single rooms." Most of the East Enders were sharks: the gabbling alcoholic Mr Dolls, the predatory Rogue Riderhood, the cunning Silas Wegg. Now I could stroll from here and look at adverts for million-pound townhouses and one-bed apartments trading for a cool quarter of a million each.

    Of course, it wasn't always like this. Not so long ago, in the fevered imagination of the early 20th century tabloids, this was where Fu Manchu had roamed, sparked by rumours of a shadowy underworld figure, the Brilliant Chang:

    Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government--which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.


    Back in "the war to end all wars", relations between Chinese men and white women in the East End fast became an issue of national concern. The Chinese round here were scapegoats: their lack of integration represented the breakdown of social order, whilst as a bachelor community they posed a sexual and racial threat. Anxiety about the "inscrutable Chinamen" who dwelt at the hub of Britain's empire fed the myth of an Oriental criminal conspiracy operating from within the capital.

    Yet Sax Rohmer and Jack London's "yellow peril" had long-since departed for Soho. This was Chinatown no more, and had not been for many years. Surely the lascars and opium dens which had once welcomed Dorian Gray and Sherlock Holmes had gone, too? And surely modern Britain had learned not to demonise a foreign community again, with its different skin and different religion, during a time of terrorism and confusion...?

    I sat there and this time I laughed. I laughed at the old Christian lady, telling me Islam was a wicked faith. At the proud whites four miles down the road in Barking, who talked of Africans getting fifty grand for housing in Essex. And at the earnest, middle-aged women I saw lapping up tales of mythic Brick Lane, whilst young hedonists strolled its length and proclaimed their new ownership, oblivious to curry-house touts quietly dealing under their noses.

    This was a now a place of wealth and opportunity, sitting astride the largest sporting event ever to grace the planet: the 2012 Olympics. Not the terrible, gin- and opium-ridden abyss of the 19th century, as Oscar Wilde had written not far from where I now smoked and drank by the river:

    The hideous hunger for opium began to gnaw at him. His throat burned and his delicate hands twitched nervously together. He struck at the horse madly with his stick...

    The door opened quietly, and he went in without saying a word to the squat misshapen figure that flattened itself into the shadow as he passed. At the end of the hall hung a tattered green curtain that swayed and shook in the gusty wind which had followed him in from the street.

    He dragged it aside and entered a long low room which looked as if it had once been a third-rate dancing-saloon. Shrill flaring gas-jets, dulled and distorted in the fly-blown mirrors that faced them, were ranged round the walls. Greasy reflectors of ribbed tin backed them, making quivering disks of light.

    The floor was covered with ochre-coloured sawdust, trampled here and there into mud, and stained with dark rings of spilled liquor. Some Malays were crouching by a little charcoal stove, playing with bone counters and showing their white teeth as they chattered.

    In one corner, with his head buried in his arms, a sailor sprawled over a table, and by the tawdrily painted bar that ran across one complete side stood two haggard women, mocking an old man who was brushing the sleeves of his coat with an expression of disgust.

    "He thinks he's got red ants on him," laughed one of them, as Dorian passed by. The man looked at her in terror and began to whimper.


    But I had seen all this, and worse. And I had seen it here.

    *