Thursday, March 31, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 7

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.
“Whilst the rich drank tea and ate mutton, the poor were waiting for the warmth and for the plants to grow.”

The difference between seasons, as also the difference between night and day, shine and rain, is vital. The flow of time is turbulent. The turbulence makes life-times shorter – both in fact and subjectively. Duration is brief. Nothing lasts. This is as much a prayer as a lament.

(The mother) was grieving that she had died and forced her children to mourn for her; if she could have, she would have gone on living forever so that nobody should suffer on her account, or waste, on her account, the heart and the body to which she had given birth....but the mother had not been able to stand living for very long.”
Death occurs when life has no scrap left to defend.

Not Playing The Game

gary+sobers viv+richards michael+holding
For as long as I can remember the West Indies has been my cricket team. This affinity had more to do with accident than design. When we moved to England we lived not far from The Oval and it was there, sitting in front of the gasholders, that I first saw Gary Sobers and Rohan Kanhai, Wes Hall and Lance Gibbs: names to conjure with. To be part of that South London crowd – at least half of whom must have been first- and second-generation Caribbean settlers – was a wonderful education. Kanhai hooking into the crowd off bended knee, and then blocking the next ball with due care and attention: "Tell him no, man!" The days of Clive Lloyd's ruthless winning machine were still years off but I knew what I liked and the WIndies rarely disappointed. And then a succession of greats and their never-to-be forgotten performances – Viv Richards's stamp of genius in 1976 or Michael Holding's deadly beauty at a parched Oval that same year, Gordon Greenidge's swaggering authority at Lord's in 1984 or Malcolm Marshall's heroics four years later.

All great teams rise and fall (though I'm not sure the current Aussie team is quite ready to call it a day). But the fall of West Indies cricket from its elevated state of grace has been evident since the mid-1990s and shows no sign of reversing any time soon. For a while the real depth of the decline was masked by the efforts of three wonderful players – Brian Lara, Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. The two fast bowlers have gone now and Lara remains a troubled and troubling presence.

All kinds of reasons have been put forward for the decline. Some blame the influx of satellite dishes and cable companies, leading to the saturation of American sports on television. Others point to the changing economies in the Caribbean making cricket too time consuming and expensive to play. The West Indies Cricket Board has also been castigated for not planning sufficiently for the future. Or maybe it is just the cyclical nature of sport. Perhaps the most brutal assessment comes from Hilary Beckles, the doyen of Caribbean cricket historians. He blames the players:

You cannot get a more miserable, self-dividing people anywhere in the Caribbean like West Indian cricketers. It's a miserable community that cannot rise and take responsibility for their own craft.
If this seems harsh then the latest crisis to envelop the West Indies seems to bear him out. On the eve of an important home series against South Africa, half a dozen of the best players – including Lara – were not available for selection because of an unseemly dispute over sponsorship deals and money. The details are not important and it looks like a settlement might soon be reached. But the longer term omens are not at all good. Something is rotten in the state of West Indies cricket.

In today's Guardian, the Trinidadian writer B.C. Pires offers a sobering tale of "self-inflicted pride and prejudice". He is clear about the way in which today's impasse between the players, the Board and the sponsors is symptomatic of much deeper problems:
The root causes of the crisis are the same as they have always been in Caribbean cricket: the last three weeks of brinksmanship are only a reflection and inevitable consequence of years of decline, mismanagement, greed and insularity.
In particular, Pires says,
the accusation of greed is difficult to avoid... [all] have been plainly seeking to feather their own nests.
And his conclusion is especially bleak:
Against this barrage of negativity the West Indian population has been able to bring only hope. Up to yesterday Caribbeans were praying for a last-minute, miraculous resolution that would give them a team they could love as well as support. This morning many of them could be forgiven for thinking that, in the Caribbean in cricket at least, there is no future, just the past happening over and over again
Beyond the very obvious problems that have long beset Caribbean cricket I had always held on to the cyclical view of sporting decline and eventual revival – the West Indies' time would come again sooner or later. Now I am not so sure. What if there really is no future?

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 6

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

The worst cruelties of life are its killing injustices. Almost all promises are broken. The poor’s acceptance of adversity is neither passive nor resigned. It’s an acceptance which peers behind the adversity and discovers there something nameless. Not a promise, for (almost) all promises are broken; rather something like a bracket, a parenthesis in the otherwise remorseless flow of history. And the sum total of these parentheses is eternity.

This can be put the other way round: on this earth there is no happiness without a longing for justice.

Happiness is not something to be pursued, it is something met, an encounter. Most encounters, however, have a sequel; this is their promise. The encounter with happiness has no sequel. All is there instantly. Happiness is what pierces grief.

We thought there was nothing left in the world, that everything had disappeared long ago. And if we were the only ones left, what was the point of living?

“We went to check”, said Allah. “‘Were there any other people anywhere? We wanted to know.”

Chagataev understood them and asked if this meant they were now convinced about life and wouldn’t be dying any more.

“Dying’s no use”, said Cherkezov. “To die once – now you might think that’s something necessary and useful. But dying once doesn’t help you to understand your own happiness – and no one gets the chance to die twice. So dying gets you nowhere.”

Ten Of The Best

One of the best things about passing on the stick of the recent book survey is the chance to follow up on other bloggers' choices. From this partial spider's web I have selected just one of the deserted island titles from each of the respondents. I will pursue them over the coming weeks. It's also a nice way of highlighting some of blogs I read regularly.

From Saheli: W.G. Sebald's The Rings Of Saturn
From Michael: Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang
From Norm: George Eliot's
Middlemarch (Proust is just too daunting)
From Anne: Milton's Paradise Lost
From Hak Mao: Victor Serge's The Case Of Comrade Tulayev
From Darren: Edward Gaitens's The Dance Of The Apprentices
From Douglas: Stendhal's Le Rouge et Le Noir
From Stuart: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
From Richard: Isaac Bashevis Singer's Collected Stories
From Joseph: Iain M Banks's Against A Dark Background
Well that lot should keep me busy.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 5

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

The secret of storytelling amongst the poor is the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere, where somebody, or perhaps a legion of people, know better than the storyteller or the story’s protagonists, what life means. The powerful can’t tell stories: boasts are the opposite of stories, and any story however mild has to be fearless and the powerful today live nervously.

A story refers life to an alternative and more final judge who is far away. Maybe the judge is located in the future, or in the past that is still attentive, or maybe somewhere over the hill, where the day’s luck has changed (the poor have to refer often to bad or good luck) so that the last have become first.

Story-time (the time within a story) is not linear. The living and the dead meet as listeners and judges within this time, and the greater the number of listeners felt to be there, the more intimate the story becomes to each listener. Stories are one way of sharing the belief that justice is imminent. And for such a belief, children, women and men will fight at a given moment with astounding ferocity. This is why tyrants fear storytelling: all stories somehow refer to the story of their fall.

Wherever he went, he only had to promise to tell a story and people would take him in for the night: a story’s stronger than a Tsar. There was just one thing: if he began telling stories before the evening meal, no-one ever felt hungry and he didn’t get anything to eat. So the old soldier always asked for a bowl of soup first.

Jimmy Smith And An Aomori Winter

winter+aomori+2 winter+aomori+1
Hisashi has a jazz programme on a local radio station in Hokkaido, northern Japan, and we've been writing to each other about Jimmy Smith
. He featured the great album The Sermon last Sunday. And, in passing, Hisashi sent me these two photographs: "I am sure they will remind you of what chilly days are like". I don't need reminding but they're nice shots.

The Morning After

Obviously most people were talking about last night's earthquake though some friends, remarkably, managed to sleep through the whole thing. We are over 500km from the epicentre but the tremors were strong and prolonged, and there was a real sense of fear and bewilderment. The memories of 26 December are still fresh. Firsthand accounts of people's experiences of the earthquake can be found here while there are reports here, here, here and here. There are fears that 2,000 may have died with the small island of Nias taking the brunt. I am still waiting news of Mai Lin and her daughter, Sophie, in Kerinci, Sumatra. I simply hope they're safe.

Earthquake 'Round Midnight

It was around midnight. The city was quiet, bedding down for the night. And then came the now familiar feeling. Our tall apartment block started swaying – strong, deliberate trembling. The wooden wind chimes clashed discordantly; glasses on the draining board tinkled; the panicked voices of our neighbours betrayed rising alarm. 90 seconds is a very long time in an earthquake. You think about many things in that time. We hid for some seconds, perhaps half a minute, under the big wooden divan but, to me at least, that seemed to make us more vulnerable. "Let's get out of here". So we grabbed keys, shoes, and ran down the stairs – turning, turning on ourselves down sixteen stories. Halfway down I caught up with my friend Seth who was struggling to carry his son. He handed him over and I carried the small, sleeping boy – innocently unaware of the panic around him – deadweight in my arms. We reached the ground level where hundreds and hundreds had gathered on the street. Everyone knew it was another earthquake, another huge tremor, which must have come from Sumatra again. "Again" – it was the word on everyone's lips. Was it just three months ago? There's been a lot of seismic activity recently but nobody was expecting anything on this scale. We waited. Neighbours began to call friends elsewhere – there had been damage all over the country. Slowly the panic died as people murmured quietly to each other, consoling and grateful. Is this now to be a regular part of our lives? Will there be another tsunami? After an age we returned to the flat, switched on the television as the story broke across the world's media, telephoned friends. I suddenly think fiercely of my friend Mai Lin who is on an archaeological dig near Kerinci in the middle of Sumatra – I can only hope that she and Sophie, her little daughter, are safe tonight. I can only hope that everyone finds sanctuary in this dark tropical night.

Monday, March 28, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 4

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

From time to time despair enters into the lives which are mostly grief. Despair is the emotion which follows a sense of betrayal. A hope against hope (which is still far from a promise) collapses or is collapsed; despair fills the space in the soul which was occupied by that hope. Despair has nothing to do with nihilism.

Nihilism, in its contemporary sense, is the refusal to believe in any scale of priorities beyond the pursuit of profit, considered as the end-all of social activity, so that, precisely: everything has its price. Nihilism is resignation before the contention that Price is all. It is the most current form of human cowardice. But not one to which the poor often succumb.

He began to pity his body and his bones; his mother had once gathered them together for him from the poverty of her flesh – not because of love and passion, not for pleasure, but out of the most everyday necessity. He felt as if he belonged to others, as if he were the last possession of those who have no possessions, about to be squandered to no purpose, and he was seized by the greatest, most vital fury of his life.

[A word of explanation about these quotations. They are from the stories of the great Russian writer, Andrei Platonov (1899-1951). He wrote about the poverty which occurred during the civil war and later during the forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture in the early 1930s. What made this poverty unlike more ancient poverties was the fact that its desolation contained shattered hopes. It fell to the ground exhausted, it got to its feet, it staggered, it marched on amongst shards of betrayed promises and smashed words. Platonov often used the term dushevny bednyak, which means literally poor souls. It referred to those from whom everything had been taken so that the emptiness within them was immense and in that immensity only their soul was left – that’s to say their ability to feel and suffer. His stories do not add to the grief being lived, they save something. “Out of our ugliness will grow the world’s heart”, he wrote in the early 1920s.

The world today is suffering another form of modern poverty. No need to quote the figures; they are widely known and repeating them again only makes another wall of statistics. Perhaps as much as a third of the world’s population live with less than $2 a day. Local cultures with their partial remedies – both physical and spiritual – for some of life’s afflictions are being systematically destroyed or attacked. The new technology and means of communication, the free market economy, productive abundance, parliamentary democracy, are failing, so far as the poor are concerned, to keep any of their promises beyond that of the supply of certain cheap consumerist goods, which the poor can buy when they steal.

Platonov understood living modern poverty more deeply than any other storyteller I have come across.]

Where Monsoons Meet No. 11

Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide
Being a miscellany of recent stories from Southeast Asia.

  • Burma. A recent meeting of the International Labour Organisation stated categorically that "that no adequate moves have been taken by the Burmese military regime (the "Government" of Myanmar) to reduce forced labour in Burma/Myanmar". This follows last month's visit to the country by a very high-level team to reassess the labour situation. For an international organisation, the ILO's language is unusually forthright. Its Governing Body has "expressed grave doubts" about the junta's credibility in dealing with the forced labour issue and argued that the "wait-and-see" attitude that has been the norm for the last three years is no longer tenable. The responses of various ILO constituents to the situation in Burma has been mixed. Some governments - the US, Japan, the UK and Canada - have all adopted (relatively modest) sanctions. Many international and national workers' organisations have targeted the withdrawal of multinational corporations from Burma and called for an extension of sanctions. As far as business interests are concerned it's not surprising that the ILO says that "no specific information is available" though it does cite some disinvestment by individual companies. The ILO has given the Burmese junta a new deadline of June before taking any further steps. It shouldn't hold its breath.
  • Cambodia. There are real fears that the long-delayed quest for justice for the Cambodian genocide may founder because of a lack of funds. There have already been years of delay in setting up a tribunal and plenty of compromises along the way. Two years ago the United Nations has signed off on a formula to conduct the trials in Cambodian courts with international assistance; a draft tribunal law made its way through the Cambodian legislative process; and many of the prime suspects, with the exception of Pol Pot himself, who died in 1998, are within the reach of the courts. But there may not be enough money to get the tribunal process moving. The agreed budget is $56 million, mostly from the UN. But donors have been slow to come forward – to date only five countries have made pledges – and the Cambodian government says it can only meet one-tenth of its share. Youk Chang, of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, offers this eloquent statement as to why the tribunal is vital: "It's important to understand that if we continue to delay the process, many survivors will die without seeing justice being done, and many prime suspects and perpetrators will die without being punished, which will be very difficult for many Cambodian people trying to move on with their lives". In international aid terms the amount needed is a pittance. And the reasons for the tribunal are compelling. Let's hope that the impasse can be broken. Some articles on the struggle for justice in Cambodia are available here from the excellent Cambodia Genocide Program at Yale.
  • Thailand. More than one month after the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, imposed his hardline policy, the violence in southern Thailand shows no signs of abating. Yesterday, 22 people were injured in a train ambush at Sungai Padi near the Malaysian border. There are reports here, here and here. As things stand at the government simply has no policy to deal with the causes of the rebel movement still less its horrible consequences.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 3

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

The lives of the poor are mostly grief, interrupted by moments of illumination. Each life has its own propensity for illumination and no two are the same. (Conformism is a habit cultivated by the well-off.) Illuminated moments arrive by way of tenderness and love – the consolation of being recognised and needed and embraced for being what one suddenly is! Other moments are illuminated by an intuition, despite everything, that the human species serves for something.

“Nazar tell me something or other – something more important than anything.”

Aidym turned down the wick in the lamp in order to use less paraffin. She understood that, since there was something or other in life that was more important than anything, it was essential to take care of every good that there was.

“I don’t know the thing that really matters, Aidym,” said Chagataev. “ I haven’t thought about it, I’ve never had time. But if we’ve both of us been born, then there must be something in us that really matters.”

Aidym agreed: “A little that does matter... and a lot that doesn’t.”

Aidym prepared supper. She took a flat bread out of a sack, spread it with sheep’s fat and broke it in half. She gave Chagataev the big half, and took the small half herself. They silently chewed their food by the weak light of the lamp. In the Ust-Yurt and the desert it was quiet, uncertain and dark.”

Tens Of Thousands Of Stories

Yesterday I wrote about the
tsunami and remembrance. I ended the piece like this:
But the individual stories still matter: they are the personal and existential realities of death and loss, of survival and hope, of frailty and strength.
The Guardian has a long essay by the novelist Louise Doughty who has visited Sri Lanka and asked the island's writers and artists whether thay can play a part in the process of recovery. She gathers some very perceptive reflections from her interviewees. Here is the playwright and filmmaker Delon Weerasinghe:
The tsunami wasn't a story. It was tens of thousands of stories. No novel or play could possibly do justice to that. No single fiction could represent the multiplicity of experiences which this country went through, never mind elsewhere.
And here is Romesh Gunesekera on the writer's need to write even in the face of appalling events:
Most writers are dealing with the world they live in ... a world in which terrible things have happened and are still happening. Writing is not a matter of duty, it is more a kind of negotiation with different realities. We each do it in our own way and perhaps don't have much choice in how or what we end up writing.
There are lots of other insights into Sri Lanka's rich literary life and the rest is worth reading.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Passion Of The Cricket Crowd

Mike Marqusee has a short essay here on watching cricket in India at the recent India–Pakistan test match at Mohali. Actually it's a celebration of the crowd:
A cricket crowd is a complex organism, a throbbing mass with a life of its own. It’s rarely static. In the course of a day’s play it undergoes paroxysms of joy and despair, intervals of humour, bouts of nastiness and periods of boredom. Sometimes it’s fractious, bickering with itself. Sometimes it’s unanimous - astonishingly, if briefly, it really does seem to feel like 'one soul', filled with a single emotion.
Not quite Lord's, but this is South Asia where cricket is still the people's game despite the penetration of the media and celebrity culture. Mike also sees some signs of hope that India versus Pakistan may be transforming into a normal sporting contest and not simply an excuse for hatred. He spots this on a banner:
Bat and ball is a lot better than assault rifle and grenade.
The photo (above) tells the same story. Read the rest.

"I Can Sing The Top Of A Song"

Just the other day I posted about Billie Holiday's version of "Gloomy Sunday" and then I come across this in today's Guardian. In advance of her book, With Billie, Julia Blackburn offers a taster on Lady Day's life by those who knew her. What comes through, she says, is not Billie the victim but a woman of remarkable strength in the face of adversity.
Initially, I thought I was going to write a biography, but what I have ended up with is something more like a documentary. Instead of trying to produce a unified account of Holiday's life, I have let some of the most interesting or eloquent speakers tell their own story of who she was and what she meant to them. As I worked with these interviews I began to see a very different person to the drug-riddled victim of her own vices so often and so flippantly described on CD covers and elsewhere.
Here are some extracts from Blackburn's essay that give a sense of Billie Holiday's personalities and priorities:

Pianist Bobby Tucker:
He remembered the occasion when she was being presented with an award and the house lights were suddenly turned on and "she literally froze, her voice was shaking, she was trembling". This fear was always visible to the people who knew her well, but it was part of her strength, part of the energy of concentration. She said: "The time when you go out there on stage and you're not nervous, that's when you're gonna stink."
Stump Daddy:
Lady Day was a tremendous mental musical being. She knew about the creative value of music. She'd come out of the sky with something and she could crack your skull with a riff.
Pianist and composer Irene Kitchings:
Once Billie got big, it didn't matter to her. All she wanted was to have some decent music to accompany her and the people to be quiet and listen to her sing... Singing was all she knew how to do. That's all that made her real happy.
And finally Billie herself:
I've got stories about music and that means I can sing the top of a song.
Read the rest.

That Have Not Been Asked: 2

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.

The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.

Twilight was setting in; the sky wrapped in cool grey fog, was already being closed off by darkness; and the wind, after spending the day rustling stubble and bare bushes that had gone dead in preparation for winter, now lay itself down in still low places on the earth...
The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens.

Tsunami Stories And Remembrance

It's exactly three months since the earthquake-tsunami catastrophe struck the Indian Ocean. There has been, during that time, a huge amount of reflection and commentary on almost every conceivable aspect of the disaster. Not unnaturally, perhaps, the focus of most media outlets have moved on – it's the unremitting logic of presentism in the news agenda.

But some websites have done an excellent job in reminding us of the lives of the survivors and of the ongoing struggle for recovery and reconstruction. In the fickle world of news manufacture this is a necessary effort of remembrance.

To its credit the BBC has consistently updated its coverage of post-tsunami stories and I highlight some of the recent ones here. As you'd expect they are a mixture of the hopeful and the disturbing:
  • Everyone was, I think, moved by the generosity of ordinary people in raising huge amounts of money for the tsunami victims. Doubts were aired, however, over the pledges made by rich countries and with good reason. This report says that there is a $4 billion shortfall in promised donations. It's based on a recent Asian Development Bank report on reconstruction which, among other things, highlights the need for coordination mechanisms and means for combating corruption.
  • There is a moving photo essay here on the efforts of Alana McGowan – who lost her sister and nieces when the tsunami hit the Thai island of Phi Phi – to set up a nursery for surviving children, who now live in camps in the mainland town of Krabi.
  • This report links the plans for reconstructing Aceh to the hopeful negotiations between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) though, as it points out, there are signs that the informal truce on the ground is fraying.
  • Less hopefully, the United Nations' refugee agency has announced its withdrawal from Aceh ahead of new restrictions on foreign aid agencies undertaking emergency relief in the region. The Indonesian government is uncomfortable with UNHCR's highlighting of human rights abuses by the military.
  • Most attention has been paid to the physical and material aspects of reconstruction but there are enduring psychological problems affecting mental health. Trauma, stress and guilt are just some of the more obvious signs. Children, in particular, will need long-term counselling and support.
  • A couple of reports here and here highlight the gender impact of the tsunami. There is staggering evidence from an Oxfam report that four times as many women than men may have been killed in some regions. As the report argues: "disasters are disciminatory" and renewed efforts will have to be made to integrate this horrible reality into relief efforts. The fishermen widows of Sri Lanka are simply not coping with the loss of women in their communities.

Remembrance is a social process, while memory, both individual and collective, is its product. Collective remembrance, the process of public recollection of the kind contained in these stories and thousands of others, is the act of those people who gather bits and pieces of the past and join them together for a public – for you and me – who will express, reflect upon and consume that memory. As in all catastrophes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But the individual stories still matter: they are the personal and existential realities of death and loss, of survival and hope, of frailty and strength.

Friday, March 25, 2005

That Have Not Been Asked: 1

From John Berger's essay "That Have Not Been Asked" with photographs by Sebastião Salgado.
The wind got up in
the night and took our plans away.

(Chinese proverb)

Thursday, March 24, 2005

John Berger And Sebastião Salgado

The celebration of John Berger's work – called "Here Is Where We Meet" – opens in London in a couple of weeks. As a way of acknowledging that celebration, and as a way of reflecting on some of my recent posts on the Victims Of The Metropolis or The Agony Of Toil, I am posting, daily, excerpts from John Berger's recent essay "That Have Not Been Asked" from openDemocracy. Its themes are
poverty, desire, storytelling, and the future’s gift to the present. It comes in "ten dispatches".

I will be illustrating the essay with photographs by Sebastião Salgado who has a long association with Berger. In lieu of a preface to the new essay, here is Berger writing on Salgado and his collection, Migrations:

In a strange way, in all these pictures, one feels in Salgado's vision the word "yes" - not that he approves of what he sees, but that he says "yes" because it exists. Of course he hopes that this "yes" will provoke in people who look at the pictures a "no", but this "no" can only come after one has said, "I have to live with this." And to live with this world is first of all to take it in. The opposite is indifference.

The point about hope is that it is something that occurs in very dark moments. It is like a flame in the darkness; it isn't like a confidence and a promise.

In the 1940s the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote this – a kind of summing up, I think, of what Salgado was saying: "There are only two services that images can offer the afflicted. One is to find the story that expresses the truth of their affliction. The second is to find the words that can give resonance, through the crust of external circumstances, to the cry that is always inaudible: "Why am I being hurt?"

There's an excellent website on Sebastião Salgado's work here. John Berger's own work is like that same "flame in the darkness". We should cherish him as our own.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Little Gentle Flogging

I would normally agree that the term "Kafkaesque" is overused. But I can't for the life of me think of anything more appropriate to describe what's going on in Malaysia's immigration saga. Think of In The Penal Colony ... and you'll get the point.

A little recap may be order for those of you who've not been following. Last year the Malaysian authorities decided to expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrant workers, mainly drawn from Indonesia and the Philippines. The usual xenophobic nonsense is used to justify the move. Then on 26 December the earthquake-tsunami catastrophe strikes – devastating Aceh, killing hundreds of thousands and making millions homeless and jobless. The Malaysian government pushes on with its deportation plans though the deadline is moved in response to pleas from the Indonesian and Philippine governments and Malaysian NGOs. The punishments for over-stayers are, by any account, draconian: fines, imprisonment and floggings. The 1 March deadline arrives with few having already left the country while many migrants go into hiding. Malaysian government spokesmen go on record to say that even asylum seekers and refugees will be targeted in contravention of the country's international legal undertakings. Over the last month perhaps 500,000 workers have been forced out. And now comes this.

The same politicians who ordered the deportations are now convening a cabinet meeting to discuss ... the labour shortage in crucial sectors of the economy:
factories, restaurants, construction sites and palm oil plantations where many Malaysians simply don't want to work. So they're now turning their attention to recruiting from South Asia and especially from Pakistan. But some critics are worried that the new migrant workers may have Islamist links to al-Qaeda. This one could run and run.

Meanwhile, Malaysia's executioners and floggers are about to see their performance-related pay rise by over 300%. As the BBC puts it:
With threats to flog an estimated half a million illegal migrants thought to be hiding in Malaysia, prison officers could be in for a major windfall.
In case you're thinking of applying for a job I'd better give you the new improved rates: 10 ringgit ($2.60) for each blow with the bamboo rotan – and foreigners convicted of immigration offences can be given up to six beatings. Nice work if you can get it. But be warned, according to the prison service the competition is tough:
flogging jobs are hotly contested, with only one in five applicants being accepted. The service says only hardened staff are suitable.
In case migrant workers are trembling at the prospect of overpaid psychopaths beating ten shades of crap out of them they should just chill a little:
[T]he government has stressed that illegal migrants will be flogged gently.
Where's the little Bohemian scribbler when you need him?

Oiling The Junta

I preface this post with these powerful words from
Aung San Suu Kyi:
To observe businessmen who come to Burma with the intention of enriching themselves is somewhat like watching passers-by in an orchard roughly stripping off blossoms for their fragile beauty, blind to the ugliness of despoiled branches, oblivious of the fact that by their action they are imperilling future fruitfulness and committing an injustice against the rightful owners of the trees.
Recently, I reported on the unsuccessful bid by millions of Vietnamese to sue the manufacturers of Agent Orange for the persistent and horrific effects of those toxic chemicals. That case is set to go to appeal. But there is marginally better news today for Burmese villagers who have been fighting an 8-year court case against the US oil firm, Unocal. In an unspecified out-of-court settlement Unocal has agreed to compensate villagers who suffered severe abuses during the construction of a gas pipeline. Here is the crux of the matter:
It was accused of allowing Burmese troops guarding the project to rape, murder and enslave villagers.
This is not simply an isolated case of "rotten apples". It is absolutely sympomatic of the way that the military junta does business. For many years now there has been verifiable evidence of gross human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians and the widespread use of forced labour, including children, precisely for these projects with multinational corporations. All this is well known. But companies like Unocal still choose to sup with the devil. They just don't get it. And despite the settlement Unocal strongly denies any part in human rights abuses. The money, by the way, will be spent on development "to improve living conditions, health care and education, and protect the rights of people from the pipeline region". But it's hard to see how people will protect themselves from these military thugs.

But just as the Unocal case reaches its conclusion so the campaign against the French oil giant, TOTAL, gathers pace. The Burma Campaign UK has recently published a comprehensive report on TOTAL's dealings with the Rangoon goons:
the fourth largest oil company in the world and one of the biggest foreign investors in Burma. Its joint venture with Burma's dictatorship earns the military regime hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
And for those of you who think that the French government has some higher moral legitimacy than other governments you may think about, ponder this:
[T]ougher European Union sanctions against Burma have been blocked by the French government in its effort to protect TOTAL's interests in the country.
For years now, big capital has been drip-feeding this obnoxious regime; not just Western companies but those from China and India as well. "Constructive engagement" is a lie; "bringing 'development' to the people" is a lie. As that one-time chronicler of Burmese Days would have put it, it's all "doublespeak". Aung San Suu Kyi says "no" to these injustices. That should be good enough for us.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Singing The Blues

Tomorrow night we're screening Rolf Schubel's film Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (A Song Of Love And Death), with a review to follow. The English language version uses the title Gloomy Sunday, named for the song that Billie Holiday made famous. When I first saw the film I was enchanted with how the song is used and discovered, to my surprise, that it was a very popular Hungarian song of the 1930s (the setting for the movie). A little bit of digging allowed me to understand its reputation as the lovers' "suicide song". Here's the story.

Gloomy Sunday - the notorious 'Hungarian Suicide Song' - was written in 1933. Its melody and original lyrics were the creation of Rezsô Seress, a self-taught pianist and composer born in Hungary in 1899. The crushing hopelessness and bitter despair which characterised the two stanza penned by Seress were superseded by the more mournful, melancholic verses of Hungarian poet László Jávor.

When the song came to public attention it quickly earned its reputation as a 'suicide song'. Reports from Hungary alleged individuals had taken their lives after listening to the haunting melody, or that the lyrics had been left with their last letters.

The lyricists Sam M. Lewis and Desmond Carter each penned an English translatation of the song. It was Lewis's version, first recorded by Hal Kemp and his Orchestra, with Bob Allen on vocals (1936), that was to become the most widely covered.

The popularity of Gloomy Sunday increased greatly through its interpretation by Billie Holiday (1941). In an attempt to alleviate the pessemistic tone a third stanza was added to this version, giving the song a dreamy twist, yet still the suicide reputation remained. Gloomy Sunday was banned from the playlists of major radio broadcasters around the world. The BBC deemed it too depressing for the airwaves. Despite all such bans, Gloomy Sunday continued to be recorded and sold.

People continued to buy the recordings; some committed suicide. Rezsô Seress jumped to his death from his flat in 1968.
Naturally, I decided to check out the lyrics that seemed to have had such a powerful effect. See what you think:

Rezsô Seress version (in translation)

All love has died on earth
The wind is weeping with sorrowful tears
My heart will never hope for a new spring again
My tears and my sorrows are all in vain
People are heartless, greedy and wicked...

Love has died!

The world has come to its end, hope has ceased to have a meaning
Cities are being wiped out, shrapnel is making music
Meadows are coloured red with human blood
There are dead people on the streets everywhere
I will say another quiet prayer:
People are sinners, Lord, they make mistakes...

The world has ended!
László Jávor version (in translation)
Gloomy Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you my dearest with a prayer
A Sunday morning, chasing after my dreams
The carriage of my sorrow returned to me without you
It is since then that my Sundays have been forever sad
Tears my only drink, the sorrow my bread...

Gloomy Sunday

This last Sunday, my darling please come to me
There'll be a priest, a coffin, a catafalque and a winding-sheet
There'll be flowers for you, flowers and a coffin
Under the blossoming trees it will be my last journey
My eyes will be open, so that I could see you for a last time
Don't be afraid of my eyes, I'm blessing you even in my death...

The last Sunday
Sam M. Lewis version (in the original and Billie Holiday's lyrics)
Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless
Little white flowers will never awaken you
Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thought of ever returning you
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?

Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad I know
Let them not weep let them know that I'm glad to go
Death is no dream for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you

Gloomy Sunday

Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, here
Darling, I hope that my dream never haunted you
My heart is telling you how much I wanted you

Gloomy Sunday

The Victims Of The Metropolis

Where are the heroes, the colonisers, the victims of the Metropolis?
Brecht, Diary entry, 1921
It's been about twenty years since I first saw Ajegunle for the one and only time. I was young and just beginning an extended period of fieldwork in Nigeria. I stayed in Lagos for a few days and went to Ajegunle (known locally as "Jungle City") with Tunde, a social activist. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me for what I witnessed: the utter pity of human deprivation where people - hundreds of thousands of people - somehow eked out the conditions of survival.

In his brilliant essay on the South's Planet Of Slums, Mike Davis quotes Dickens:
I saw innumerable hosts, foredoomed to darkness, dirt, pestilence, obscenity, misery and early death.
In part, some of today's slums have recapitulated the early experiences of unfettered industrialisation. But others, like those in Lagos, confound this link. Slums exist despite the absence of industrialisation with economies broken apart by catastrophic economic primitivisation and market anarchy.

I was reminded of this formative experience by a recent piece written by John Vidal, headlined "Everyone here wakes up angry" - the words of the Lagos poet and activist, AJ Daga Tola. AJ goes on:
Everyone here wakes up in anger. The frustration of being alive in a society like this is excruciating. People find it very hard and it is getting worse. Day in, day out, poor people from all over Africa arrive in this place, still seeing Lagos as the land of opportunity. They are met at the bus stops by gangs of youths who demand payments. There is extortion at every point. Only one in 10 people have regular work.
Vidal offers us an exemplary piece of first-hand reporting. And he provides a much-needed reality check against the pieties and platitudes of the Commission for Africa's recent report. There is plenty of evidence here that the Commission's rhetoric will not be matched by action if recent policies are anything to go by: the niggardly attitude of the G8 and World Bank; the absence of any serious plan for debt relief (Nigeria has paid its debts twice over and still owes $67 billion); the multilateral institutions promoting still more disastrous privatisation schemes; and so on.

Why has this happened? A recent report of the United Nations' Human Settlements Programme offers a partial answer. Its findings move beyond the usual circumspection ofUN reports and lay the blame squarely on the policies of neoliberalism.
The primary direction of both national and international interventions during the last twenty years has actually increased urban poverty and slums, increased exclusion and inequality.
It's neoliberalism they're talking about, not "bad governance" or "cultural failings" or the usual excuses. And yet, despite all the evidence, the Commission for Africa offers nothing but more of the same. The result is already the global catastrophe of urban poverty. Today, Lagos is the node of what Mike Davis calls "probably the biggest continuous footprint of urban poverty on earth". The Commission's policy prescriptions will likely make things worse.

In the face of this stark reality, the "planet of slums", something urgent and proundly radical needs to be done. A new politics and a new sense of social action will have to be framed by and for the wretched of the earth. The Left has, by and large, shirked its responsibility to the world's informal proletariat whose organisational spaces are the marketplace and slum streets, not the factory floor. Grassroots activists like AJ offer some hope for change as do examples from elsewhere. Once, in the nineteenth cetury, the great movements for working class emancipation came from the fetid industrial cities. In the twenty-first century will a new movement for emancipation spring from the victims of the dystopian metropolis?

Monday, March 21, 2005

Book Survey Meme

Michael at Heliolith
has really put me on the spot. He's passed on to me this book survey meme which came to him via Saheli which came to her via .... I was thinking of passing on this but couldn't get it out of my mind. So here goes (but fiction only).

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?
Which bought to mind the famous words Ray Bradbury offers Faber: "Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores". So a book with texture and that breathes? Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, the hope for love amid its own folly, imprecision and lapses.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Who hasn't? Some recent examples: Both Naoko and Midori in Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami; Natalia Manur in The Man Of Feeling by Javier Marías; Fermina Daza in Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.

The last book you bought is:
Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami.

The last book you read:
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

What are you currently reading?
The Double by José Saramago and The Shape Of A Pocket by John Berger.

Five books you would take to a deserted island
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
The Plague by Albert Camus.
Memory Of Fire Trilogy by Eduardo Galeano (Genesis; Faces And Masks; Century Of The Wind).
Blindness by José Saramago.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?
Bonn at A Good Game: because he'll spring some surprises.
The feline at Hak Mao
: because she'll be pithy and perhaps scabrous.
Norm at normblog
: because he likes this kind of thing.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

A Long, Long Wait

When Wales beat England at the start of the Six Nations I smiled quietly - but did not get overexcited. There have been plenty of false dawns over the years. In any case, the game against France would be the one. And so it proved; the best game of the whole championship by far and a sign of the times. Well, we can now celebrate the first Welsh grand slam for twenty-seven years. And the boys played with such verve: quick hands, intelligent running, instinctive support and plenty of insouciance. The current team can't yet compare with their 1978 ancestors; that team had already achieved greatness but was on the verge of breaking up. The 2005 team still has so much potential.

In his own tribute, Norm surprised me by pinning his flag to the Welsh mast - I never knew. But since he's in the mood for revealing sporting affinities here are mine: Wales at rugby (my dad wouldn't have it any other way), West Indies at cricket (Sobers and Kanhai at The Oval as a kid), and, um, Colchester United at football (the first game after we arrived in England was at Layer Road and we did once famously beat Leeds United in the Cup).

Big Mac Economics

From Pierre-Antoine Delhommais in Le Monde (no link):

In Nairobi it takes three hours' work to earn enough to buy a Big Mac, compared with five minutes in Miami. An employee in Mumbai must work for 89 minutes to afford a kilo of rice, against just five minutes in Switzerland.
I'm not sure why anyone would want to buy a Big Mac but you get the point.

No Pain With Game

My friend Marwan keeps telling everyone about the educational and therapeutic effects of computer games. He's addicted. Let's say I'm a bit sceptical. I always thought that games were sloth-inducing, violence-promoting excuses for a real life. But it seems he may have a point. A few months ago it was reported that games
can be used in the classroom to help children learn concepts such as critical appreciation of narrative structure or character development which they might otherwise study in a novel.
I'll have to ask him about the parallels between Baldur's Gate and the multiple narratives of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. And now comes this: advice that a hefty dose of computer gaming can help patients overcome their pain. The report says that
children distracted in a virtual world of guns and mean monsters experienced less pain that those given only painkillers.
Perhaps that's why Marwan always goes round with a grin on his face.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Singapore: "This Vile Isle"

There is a new blog here coming out of Singapore. Posting at No Concept Of Liberty has been a bit fitful so far but suggestive of good things to come. There have already been reflections on life in the military, the "Asian Values" debate and the general state of Singapore's politics. Reading these insights also prompted a few thoughts of my own on what No Concept calls "this vile isle" (where, incidentally, I was born).

Modern Singapore has always struck me as embodying the worst of all possible worlds, a small-scale exemplar of authoritarian liberalism. It has a political system, overwhelmingly dominated by the People's Action Party, the forecloses almost any possibility of political dissent through comparatively sophisticated legalistic and cooptive methods of control.
Here is Gary Rodan's take on how Singapore's ruling classs is constantly engaged in the process of change in order to maintain control:
Historically, this included some crude forms of intimidation of political adversaries and critical elements of the media by invoking the Internal Security Act (ISA), under which people can be held indefinitely without trial. However, the more pervasive and definitive features of authoritarianism in Singapore involve a sophisticated and systematic combination of legal limits on independent social and political activities on the one hand, and extensive mechanisms of political cooptation to channel contention through state-controlled institutions on the other. This suppression of a genuine civil society not only fundamentally hampers the PAP's formal political opponents, it generally blunts political pluralism, including interest group politics. The PAP's political monopoly is rationalized through an elitist ideology, which depicts government as a technical process that mst be the preserve of a meritocracy.
Meanwhile, Singapore's economy has always been "open", deeply inserted into successive circuits of global capital – high-end manfacturing, services, information and communications – the broker between the regional economies and the rest of the world. It seems to me that Singapore offers the best possible institutional shell – on behalf of capital – for managing the current tensions and contradictions of the global political economy. It's an amalgam of highly attenuated political freedoms coupled with a regulatory state that promotes all the usual shibboleths for growth (innovation, technology, competitiveness, and the rest). Rodan calls it a model for "profits and censorship".

But this emergent form of authoritarian liberalism is not confined to Singapore alone. Marx famously said that "the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future". And that is how I think we should read Singapore's long term significance: for countries like China and Vietnam look explicitly to Singapore as a model for managing their own radical transformations. No Concept Of Liberty captures the implications for Singaporeans – or at least those not captivated entirely by the cult of complacency and consumerism – in the following terms:
victims as we are of MINDEATH, a muzzled press and a state that treats us as means and not as ends.
Read some more, as they say.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


Apparently, I'm the
695,010,997th richest person in the world; that puts me in the top 11.58%. Oh yes, it also means that there are 5,304,989,003 poorer than me. How do I know? Try here. It's pretty sobering.
(Via: Pas au-delà)

Joining The Band Of Five

The little master joined a pretty exclusive club today: Sunil Gavaskar, Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara and now Sachin Tendulkar – the five who have scored 10,000 test runs. It's quite an achievement: the same number of innings as Lara and an average considerably better than the others at 57.80. I've only seen him batting twice: in a one-day international against England in 1996 when he was dismissed for a single; and amid the cacophony of the India vs Pakistan World Cup game at Old Trafford in 1999 when he scored a solid 45. So I've never seen him at the top of his form. But there's no doubt that he is one of the greats; Bradman thought of Tendulkar as the best of his generation.

There are tributes all over the place. But I especially like this piece of old-fashioned purple prose from Dileep Premachandran on the impact of the young Tendulkar:

Those innings embellished a legend that had its genesis on the dusty maidans of Mumbai school cricket, where he and his ebony-hued comrade, Vinod Kambli, had laid waste a string of run-scoring records. By the time Tendulkar was 15, Kapil Dev had bowled to him in the nets, while Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar had already earmarked him for greatness.

As the years passed, more and more layers of delicate gold leaf – many against the all-conquering Australians – would add lustre to a cricketing deity quite unlike any seen before.
Over-the-top but he's been a truly wonderful player.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Patronising Africa (Again)

I have spent some time skimreading the report of the Commission for Africa,
Our Common Interest, and taking a hard look at the core chapters. The whole thing is downloadable here. I find the tone of report patronising in the extreme and the substantive recommendations to be little more than a thoroughgoing restatement of the usual "developmental" palliatives: governance and capacity-building; peace and security; investing in people; growth and poverty reduction; fairer trade. Fine words that mean very little in the context of a comprehensive model that embeds market dependence at every turn. Some commentators have picked up on the report's criticisms of institutions such as the IMF and World Bank as evidence that a new post-Washington Consensus is emerging, one that is more finely attuned to the real needs of Africa's people and is genuinely reformist. We should reject this argument. In fact, as is well known, both Bretton Woods institutions have been working hard over the last few years to frame an even more intrusive approach to capitalist development that focuses on social, political, cultural and institutional change as well as a continued commitment to "sound macro-economic principles". Our Common Interest is entirely consistent with this revised neoliberal agenda. And as almost everyone is aware, nearly all African people today are considerably poorer than they were twenty years ago precisely as a result of the consistent application of neoliberal austerity measures. Now the great and the good of the Commission want to extend and intensify these oppressive conditions.

Raj over at Class Worrier calls the report "this vile little document". Here's a flavour:

Tony Blair's Commission for Africa is a bunch of wank....

Actually, it's a great deal worse. It's precisely the kind of unctious toss that we've expected to spurt from Labour's glands. And, now that they've released this sticky little report, we can only hope that Blair will roll over, fart, and go to sleep. Not likely that he will though. More than anything, the Commission for Africa looks like it's a manifesto for yet more fiddling about with Africa, once again in the name of 'development'....

Couldn't have put it better myself.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

More On Agent Orange

Following up on my
post on Agent Orange, the excellent Kotaji has more on its use in Korea during the late 1960s, something that the US government denied for a long while. In relation to the civil case brought by millions of Vietnamese against the manufacturers of this deadly stuff, Ken Herrmann, who is director of the Da Nang/Quang Nam Fund which provides aid to children affected by exposure to Agent Orange, has gone on record to explain precisely what the plaintiffs are seeking:
They're asking for environmental clean-up; they're asking for medical care; they're asking merely for justice. Now, whether that will involve billions of dollars or whether it will involve a variety of corporations assisting in renumerating the harm that was done, I don't know that. But I do know that it is a matter of mere social justice.
Other blogs are covering this ongoing scandal and the fight for social justice here
and here.

There is also a very moving photo essay
by Manuel Navarro Forcada entitled "Vietnam 21st century: On the track of Agent Orange" at Fifty Crows here. The blurb says this:
[It] investigates the horrific persisting effects of the dioxin-contaminated herbicide used by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. Although Agent Orange was officially deployed to defoliate the tropical foliage of the region in order to render visible those beneath, dioxin exposure to humans has proven extremely harmful, if not lethal. By visiting hospitals, schools, and orphanages in Vietnam and documenting the many birth defects and malformations of children born in the thirty-year aftermath of the Vietnam War, Forcada’s photographs serve as solemn reminders of the atrocities of war. They are also a plea to rouse waning global interest in the war-torn legacy of Vietnam.
And then tell me you're not moved to action.