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'.


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

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.