Posts Tagged ‘world’

Cameron the arms-dealer

Posted 23 Feb 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

It seems quite extraordinary to me that David Cameron thinks that it is, in the current climate in the Middle East and Arab world, appropriate for the British PM to spend time hawking the British Defence industry in Kuwait. That’s right – he and eight senior representatives of the UK’s arms manufacturers are conducting an arms-sales trip to the Gulf at the exact same time that the regimes of Bahrain and Libya are firing on their own protesters using weapons (from tear-gas canisters to sniper rifles) which we have sold them. And Cameron sees no problem: any sales, he tells, us are “covered by assurances that they would not be used in human rights repression” – when the evidence from the Arab world flatly contradicts this fact. Let’s face it, if this arms-fair had taken place in early January, we would have been selling weapons to Mubarak – and do we think he would have refrained from using them when his (richly-deserved) troubles began?

Some think it’s fine for the British defence industry to sell weapons to states which may use them against whomsoever they choose. Cameron certainly does. He says

“There is an argument to be had about whether it is right to be involved in the defence trade. My view is that you cannot expect every country in the world to provide for its own defence and so it is perfectly logical and sensible that there should be a trade in defence. Kuwait is a good example of a country that has been moving in an open and participatory direction.”

Just for a moment let’s accept his argument as valid – Britain has been selling arms abroad for decades and it’s unlikely it will ever stop. In these straightened times it is the role of the PM to encourage trade which benefits the UK economy, and we’ll accept his implication (for now) that so long as there is movement away from repression and violence in the countries we sell to, we should not be troubled by ethical concerns.

So, accepting all that – that it’s essentially OK for the British to arm the regimes of the Arab world – are we still entirely happy with his decision to choose now of all times to launch this sales-push?

Now, OK, the Kuwaiti arms-fair is a long-standing calendarised event for which the likes of BAE Systems, QinetiQ and Rolls-Royce have been preparing for months – and presumably Gerald Howarth, our Defence Minister, needs to be in attendance. Perhaps under ordinary circumstances it would be reasonable for the PM to go along too (presumably Prince William and Beckham – who normally handle this sort of crap – were busy). But when North Africa and the Gulf States are being torn asunder by despotic regimes punishing their citizens for daring to demand their rights, and when hundreds and possibly thousands are dying at the hands of the people we have been busy selling weapons to for years, surely it makes sense for Cameron to take a back seat on this one.

To use this time to profit is morally repugnant. There is little question that more arms trading will happen than ever at the Kuwait weapons-fair this year, and that is purely because Gulf states who regarded their internal situations as secure this time last year are now scenting, fearfully, the prospect of chaos in the air. And here Cameron is, stuffing their money into his trouser pockets.

And let’s row back on our argument. I said a moment ago I’d been willing to accept his premise that arming states which are ‘moving in an open and participatory direction’ was ethically justified. Well – it’s not. Put simply, we should not be selling ANY weapons to ANY undemocratic, despotic or dangerous countries, allies or not. Bahrain is moving ‘in an open and participatory direction’. In the years since Libya came in from the cold, it’s been ‘moving in an open and participatory direction’. But this slow, uncertain, unreliable movement is not enough. In both of those countries British weapons are being employed to gun down the very people who are protesting for an end to corruption and the opening up of democratic processes. These weapons are being used to shut down, not encourage, a trajectory towards peaceful democratic statehood.

And for that reason, Cameron (who isn’t to blame for all those arms deals under previous governments, of course), is taking the absolutely wrong approach in driving more deals with more uncertain states forward. If those guns, tanks, tear-gas grenades and riot shields are used against peaceful protesters again, he will have to take some very small (but not insignificant) part of the blame, and he will have dragged the international reputation of Britain – which is already a long way from perfect – through the gutter once again. We have to decide, is this the kind of country we want to be? One that arms the nation’s bullies, or one that opposes them? I really don’t see how we can be both.

Bahrain next?

Posted 15 Feb 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East

If a government sends the army in to fire on a crowd, and kills somebody in the process, and then the next day, at the person’s funeral, sends the army in to fire on the crowd, and kills somebody, are they just putting into a place a cycle which will play out every day until only the army and the government is left?

This is Bahrain. It’s a testament to the crazyness of 2011 so far that it could easily be pretty much any one of the country’s Arab neighbours. Who will be next?

Asia’s Time Wasters

Posted 20 Feb 2008 — by Jonathan
Category Development, Politics

Last year this blog published an article called Africa’s Time Wasters. It was an attempt to draw attention to the excesses and abuses of the current worst leaders on the continent of Africa and show how their mismagement and brutality were hindering the development of their respective countries. This article attempts do the same for Asia.

This not-too-serious article, in no particular order, attempts to draw attention to and rate out of 5 three of Asia’s present day worst leaders and highlight their policies, legacies and crimes, all of which add up to their inclusion, with Africa’s worst leaders, in the list – the ‘Time Wasters of Development’.

Burma – Senior General Than Shwe

As head of the Burmese armed forces and effectively head of state in Burma since 1992, and as the head of several puzzlingly titled councils (including the ‘State Peace and Development Council’ and the ominous sounding ‘State law and Order Restoration Council’) Than Shwe has consolidated power in Burma to a degree not achieved by his predecessors.

This army man has overseen the addition of many ignoble suffixes to Burma’s recent history, including the continued detention of Noble Prize winning Democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, the relocation of the nation’s capital from Rangoon to the centre of the country (a decision Than Shwe made after consulting ‘expert astrologers’) and the overseeing of the suppression that followed the Monks’ protest of 2007.

Than Shwe was central in introducing a law whereby any head of state of Burma cannot have a foreign-born spouse. This seemed an unlikely law to enforce, until it was pointed out in the foreign media that Aung San Suu Kyi had married a British man and – although he had died several years ago – she would still thus be considered forever unable to become head of state. Ms Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Yangon (Rangoon) where she has been for most of the last 18 years – separated from her family.

Foreign media is virtually all banned from Burma and the penalties for any Burmese seen talking to, or worse assisting foreigners are harsh. The organisation Reporters Without Borders ranked Burma as 164th out of 168 nations in its 2006 Press Freedom index. Outside news equally is hard to obtain, with CNN and the BBC World Service frequently jammed and made unavailable within the country.

Though coverage of the recent Monks’ protests and subsequent crack-down was hard to obtain, one glimpse into the world that Than Shwe has created did leak out from Burma and can in fact be found in 24 parts on YouTube. It is a film made at his daughters wedding to one of his most senior Burmese ministers. The cost of the wedding, largely covered by the state, came to over three times the amount of Burma’s entire healthcare budget. The video of bride, groom and guests surrounded by lavish food and gifts has been widely distributed in Burma and has not surprisingly caused considerable anger. It is thought that, soon after, Than Shwe’s wife and children fled to Laos fearing a possible backlash.

Since the New Year the United States has announced that it has stepped up sanctions against Than Shwe and his junta, but existing sanctions have had little impact other than to make the life of ordinary Burmese virtually intolerable. Meanwhile the military are able to consolidate their power and prolong the wait for free elections. The educated people of Burma, who have known freedom and democracy in the past will, for the time being, it seems, have to wait for a return to a more enlightened leadership.

Time Wasting Score: (3)

Uzbekistan – President Islam Karimov

Like many other autocratic Central Asian leaders President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan rules his people with an iron fist. Head of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan at the time of the collapse of the USSR, Karimov inherited leadership of the strategically placed Uzbekistan, its geography proving very useful to the United States for the establishment of airbases in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan.

Karimov’s grasp of democracy is only nominal, however. He ‘won’ the first election (of sorts) held in Uzbekistan after independence – his political opponents, for some reason, chose to flee. Then in 1995 Karimov held a referendum to extend his term until the year 2000. This he won with ease. Then when 2000 arrived he announced that presidential terms of office would be extended from 5 years to 7. This he had backdated, so that his term would last until 2007. In 2007 and presumably running out of ways to manipulate the law in order to remain in power, Karimov simply broke it and announced that he would run for another term in office. His would-be opponents denounced this as an illegal move but their words were blunted by the fact that through fear every speech they gave started with praise for the incumbent President. Unsurprisingly Karimov won with a convincing-sounding 88.1% of the vote.

Islam Karimov’s terms in power have been characterised by corruption, and by detention and torture of political opponents, but his most notorious moment came in May 2005 when troops loyal to him opened fire on demonstrators in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan. According to human rights groups several hundred people were killed in the massacre and in the subsequent ‘clean up’ operation. International criticism followed with the EU barring Uzbek leaders from visiting and banning the sales of weapons to the country. Belated US criticism of the shootings led to America closing its airbases in the country and withdrawing its military.

Karimov looks as unlikely as ever to relinquish power. His forces frequently torture opponents including boiling them alive. He is amassing a vast personal wealth, as is his family. His daughter, despite having a US warrant out for her arrest, has first dibs on many state contracts and has grown extremely rich and powerful within the country as a result. In the meantime, it is difficult to see how ordinary Uzbeks have benefited at all from the rule of their ‘elected’ dictator.

Time Wasting Score: (4)

North Korea – Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il, the ‘Dear Leader’ of the locked-in people of North Korea, its armed forces (ranked as the fourth largest in the World though far from fourth best equipped) and of its rudimentary nuclear-weapons, assumed power upon the death of his father Kim il-Sung in 1994.

Kim Jong-il is an obvious candidate for one of Asia’s worst leaders. He has for a long while been much parodied around the world as a ‘Bond villain-esque’ leader, at home in his underground headquarters. This might not be so far from the truth as amongst his many palaces is a retreat reportedly equipped with bunkers, anti aircraft missiles and surrounded by multiple fences.

The news agency Reuters once reported that he keeps a 10,000 bottle wine cellar and that he spends an annually $700,000 on importing Cognac, whilst a report from the BBC suggested that in China, aboard his armoured train (he is terrified of flying), he ate with silver chopsticks as a precaution against being poisoned. The fact that he was eating lobster that had been flown in especially was also mentioned. His ex head-chef has recounted to the international media how he was sent on a mission to Beijing to go to McDonald’s and to buy a beef burger for his boss.

The cult of personality attributed to Kim Jong-il began under the rule of his father. School textbooks recount how the ‘Dear Leader’ was born in a military camp in North Korea, his birth foretold by a swallow, a double rainbow and a new star appearing in the sky. Kim Jong-il was in fact born in a village in Russia and only moved to North Korea following World War 2. Many in the North know this and are almost certainly privately insulted by their children being taught about ‘the appearance of a new star’, but still they are forced to attend a pilgrimage to Jong-il’s supposed birthplace, which now resembles a theme park built in his honour.

The International Herald Tribune noted in 2004 that “if the North had competitive elections, Kim would have a tough record to campaign on. During his decade in power, fuel consumption has dropped by one-third, per capita income has dwindled to 8 percent of South Korea’s, and during the famine years almost 10 percent of the population is believed to have starved to death”.

That we have in South Korea a modern Asian liberal democracy exemplifies the ruinous path that Kim Jong-il and his father have taken the north. Their mixture of Marxist ideology mixed with Confucianism has done little for the impoverished masses and has only served to isolate the north in a world that has moved on. The fact that Kim Jong-il is breathtakingly corrupt, that he squanders vast sums on luxuries whilst portraying an image to the people of a comrade-in-arms and of the common struggle against capitalism (which he shamelessly indulges in) would be an utter betrayal to the people – were they ever to find out.

Time Wasting Score: (5)

Like the previous article the scores must not be taken seriously and this list of timewasters leaves several Asian leaders absent. The three leaders above were chosen largely on the basis of the helplessness of their people at being able to end their rule. China, Iran and Indonesia should probably also be listed here, though all three do have varying degrees of accountability and their leaders (generally) do not employ any cult of personality.

As was the case with Africa, it should be a cause of grave concern to the World that these leaders remain in power, although the way the world chooses to deal with them (as in the case of North Korea) can risk solidifying their grip on rule. However, they, like their African colleagues, are indisputedly ‘Time Wasters’ in the way of their countries’ development.

Links & Resources:

The World’s Top 20 Dictators –’s annual look at the World’s worst misusers of power

The Burma Campaign – Homepage of a British based NGO which promotes Human Rights and Democracy in Burma – Article examining the mixed messages the US is giving to Uzbekistan

World Movement for Democracy
– Report from inside North Korea

Korean Central News Agency – Bizarre site of ‘official news’ from North Korea

Blogging by Dan

Palin on the new Europe

Posted 20 Aug 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Travel

While there doesn’t seem to be any date for the airing of his new TV series yet, I note that Amazon has a release date for its accompanying book, so it’s looking like the new Michael Palin project will shortly be unveiled by the BBC – and it’s almost certainly going to be one of the major highlights of the year. The series will be titled ‘New Europe’, and will follow Palin around a part of the world which remains unfamiliar to the majority of us; the countries in the old Soviet Bloc, Yugoslavia and other nations like Turkey, which are either new or aspirant members of the European Union. As Palin writes on his website, ‘these are not countries miles away; they’re close to home and there is much more history and culture and politics to understand’. We can presumably expect Palin to be as genial and insightful a guide as usual.

Anyway, if you can’t wait for the series, then the book – illustrated, as usual, with remarkable photographs by Basil Pao – will be published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on Thursday 13th September. For a better insight into what the book covers, as well as an absolutely priceless host of links to articles and resources on the countries covered, you could do a lot worse than trawl through Michael Palin’s New Europe: An Unofficial Fan Center , which is a blog written and maintained by a Slovenian Palin fan. It’s well worth a read.

Can’t wait for the series.

fuck sarkozy

Posted 29 Mar 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

It’s pleasing to note that, over in France, Segolene Royal is beginning to catch up with Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls. This is partly because, where Royal seemed flappable and Sarkozy assured in the early stages, he’s been slipping up a little recently too. Most damningly, he made a complete fool of himself on French TV by exposing his ignorance of the Middle East and Islam in much the same way that Silverstre Reyes did in the States.

Sarkozy was asked a straightforward and unambiguous question and got the answer entirely wrong, just as Royal did in similar circumstances when asked about France’s nuclear submarines. But Sarkozy’s mistake is less forgivable given the importance of the Middle East in global politcs – especially for a man who recently sent a letter of support to the French paper accused of insulting Muslims by printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

Asked whether Al-Quaida was Sunni or Shia, Sarkozy nervously expounded that “We cannot qualify al-Qaida like that!”, protesting that one mustn’t restrict membership of a terrorist organisation to that of “an ethnicity”. Quite apart from the fact that there is no ethnic divide between Sunnis and Shias, it’s almost impossible to believe that a major politician could be unaware of the fact that Al-Quaida is Sunni. Scrabbling to justify his ignorance, Sarkosy used the fact that the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Pradication et le Combat recently joined Al-Qaida to back up his erroneous belief that both Sunnis and Shias were part of the terrorrist group. Yet both, as Sean over at the Human Province points out, are “virulently Sunni”.

Back on more familiar ground for Sarko, it’s very little surprise to find that, with trouble once more brewing on the streets of Northern Paris, he has waded back in to confirm his hardline credentials. With mixed reports circulating over the origins of a riot near the Gard Du Nord, he’s denounced the rioters as being on the side of “fraudsters, cheats and dishonest people”. It’s hard to resist speculating that while the fighting may have begun because a 32 year old man punched a ticket agent who asked to see his metro pass, or may have started because police assaulted the man and broke his hand, it almost certainly got out of hand because the young blacks and Arabs of the suburbs are sick of racist police and arsehole politicians calling them “racaille”.

It would be foolish to say that Royal or Bayrou (who is running by far the best campaign of the three, and yet who is looking increasingly like a Nader candidate) represent the suburbs much better, yet Royal, unlike Sarkozy, visits Clichy sous Bois and her fellow socialists denounced the riots as a legacy of Sarkozy’s “provocative habits and language”. Bayrou, for his part, has indicated that the blame should be shared, and insisted that “it is very important to end this climate of perpetual confrontation between police and some citizens.”.

One good thing that rose from the ashes left behind in last year’s riots is the fact that many involved, previously disenchanted with the political system, have this time registered to vote and their message will mirror the grafitti plastered over their decaying estates: “Fuck Sarkozy”.

Chinese Takeaway?

Posted 09 Nov 2006 — by Dan
Category Development, General

It is easy to forget that China is still a Developing Country. We’re becoming increasingly used to hearing stories about the most rapid and dynamic economic and cultural transformation currently being experienced anywhere in the world – by a fifth of humanity, in fact. As a result, many of us perhaps assume that China has already made it and is a fully paid up member of the First World club. Whatever its current World Bank/IMF enshrined status, China and its growth affect us all and, as we are beginning to realise, its continued growth to world hyper-power status is likely to have an indelible effect on the world’s political structure, natural resources and environment.

Its thirst for Oil, Iron Ore, Soya and Timber has affected countries as diverse as Canada, Brazil and Sudan. Vast swathes of the Amazon (the equivalent to the size of Israel each year) are being exploited by non-indigenous farmers to grow Soya that’s then exported and fed to Chinese livestock. Canada has opened up old coal and copper mines in Alberta and British Columbia to meet Chinese demand and China has struck deals with non-democratic regimes in several African states. Most predominant amongst these is Sudan, where, because of international embargos and the unwillingness of many western companies and governments to invest, the Sudanese have found themselves isolated and are grateful for Chinese investment and assistance.

Thousands of Chinese labourers today live and work in Sudan and Khartoum now echoes to the sound of Karaoke bars each night. Since 1993 China has been a Net importer of Oil, and Sudan now provides 12% of that demand. 80% of all oil currently drilled in Sudan is exported to China through Chinese built and partially-owned pipes, refineries and ports. The West’s surprise at the speed of the Chinese involvement in the Horn of Africa is matched only by its unease at the level of engagement the Chinese have with a regime widely blamed for the genocide currently being perpetrated in the Darfur region of Sudan. China acknowledges that it is engaged in oil related projects in Darfur but is mute when quizzed on the ethnic conflict currently occurring there and the Sudanese governments’ complicity in it.

China has longstanding links with many African states, as during the Cold War it participated heavily on the continent with its Foreign Policy of aid without political intervention. As a result it made long term friends, connections it is able to make the most of today. It is this week hosting a large scale conference where representatives of virtually every state in Africa are in attendance. To mark the occasion the smoky skyline of Beijing is punctuated by brightly coloured pictures depicting classic scenes of African wild animals. The Chinese are hoping to secure not only their growing trade links with the continent but also political support essential for manoeuvrings at such international bodies as the Untied Nations. It knows that this voting power will be crucial in future trade talks and in possible political ranglings with the US, Russia and Japan.

Meanwhile, to meet its surging demand for power, China completes the construction of a new coal fired power station each week. In ten years its total annual Carbon emissions will surpass that of even the World’s current worst polluter, the United States, and continue to rise to national output levels the world is yet to experience. China’s own environment is already paying an extremely high price for the cost of its rapid development. The Yangtze River is polluted and dying and the new Chinese love affair with the car is causing 19th Century style ‘Pea-Souper’ pollution to occur in most of its major cities.

It seems that the rise of China is triggering a myriad of emotions in those concerned for the world’s wellbeing. Its involvement and large scale investment in Africa is positive if it leads, as many hope it will, to the reduction in poverty and an increase in development on the continent. However, China’s no ‘questions asked’ foreign policy causes many to fear that its investment will instead lead to the propping up of corrupt and undemocratic regimes and missappropriation of funds on a massive scale. Critics of China’s involvement point to the trade deals it has signed with many African countries and argue that the opening up of their economies to Chinese goods will undermine domestic industries such as textiles and agriculture, exposing them to Chinese competition.

China’s remarkable growth has not occurred by magic: it is the result of 30 years of growing foreign direct investment from mainly Japan, Europe and the US. Its huge low paid and organised workforce has for years provided the west with ever cheaper goods delivered in large numbers, and in turn China has been changing rapidly. That China’s growth and expansion should carry such a potentially heavy economic price tag for the world’s poorest people, and carry an unbearable environmental expense to the world itself should cause widespread concern.

The answer may come from the Chinese themselves, yet with little sign that the growing Chinese middle classes are interested in democratic accountability and governance for their country, the world may well be left holding its breath.

[Blogging by Dan]


Posted 27 Sep 2006 — by Jonathan
Category Uncategorized

An interesting post about Borat and Kazakhstan over at the Guardian newsblog today: the second link below will take you there…

“In an effort to set the record straight and establish whether the central Asian republic really is that bad, Guardian Unlimited conducted a trawl of recent news stories on the country. And it turns out it isn’t that bad: it’s much, much worse.”

Montreal At Night

Posted 06 May 2006 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Travel

So, while I was away in Montreal last week I did a really stupid thing. Over the course of the first four days or so I took a fair few pictures out and about in the city, but most were compromised by bad light and the endless rain. By the time the week was coming to a close and I was about to return, however, the weather suddenly turned and I had 10 hours or so of clear weather to make good on my plans to return with some decent photographs. So, sitting in my hotel room on my final morning, I turned on my digital camera, deleted the rainy, grey city from my sim card, and went back out into the sun.

My next action, naturally, was to find somewhere nice to have lunch and a beer, but – that done – I walked along by the river, my feet dry for the first time in the week, the puddles finally having evaporated or drained,and turned on my camera.

Or rather, I pressed the on button. And discovered, of course, that the battery was flat. Ha ha. So I have little to share, unfortunately, but will try to post a few pictures over the next few days. This, to get us started, is the view from my hotel room at night (click to enlarge).

It’s good to have it confirmed that the pair of big red lips I kept seeing out of the corner of my eye was real and not, in fact, a figment of my feverish imagination.

more montreal

Posted 23 Apr 2006 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Travel

I walk out from my hotel, not knowing quite where to go. I walk for ages. Later, I end up in Chinatown, which I spot from across a square walking back towards where I think my hotel is. I see that a billboard advertising Christ is framed by the oriental arch behind it. I am momentarily comforted by the fact that wherever one goes, Chinatown is always the same. I take a photograph, patronisingly, of a clutch of buildings, and walk on, staring at the LCD screen on the back of my camera. Immediately I step into a puddle which is at least two inches deep. My trainers, I notice, helpfully contain eight sizeable holes, as if for shoelaces, around the tip of my foot. These holes ensure that no part of my feet or socks remains dry. Thank you, Puma. I trudge on.

It had been a map-less journey where at times I thought I might not end up back where I began and would have to, in my stammering French or heedless English, approach a local with the name of my hotel, and ask directions. In the end I am lucky that my company booked me a hotel which was tall, and I recognise it climbing incongruously and strangely behind a cathedral (or a basilica, I forget which). The mixture of the old and new in Montreal takes me back. It is charming, not a pity.

First off, having determined that rain was no deterrent to my plans, I walked Downtown, realising as I walked through malls and sopping streets the extent of it, the distance from my continent. I had not, naively, expected Montreal to be so French. It’s in Quebec, yes. But it’s in Canada! Canada! They’ll all speak English. Last night when I got a taxi back from the airport I cheerfully tried to engage my cabbie in conversation, and was horrified to discover that not only was his English not good enough for him to understand me, but that his English, however poor, was spoken through an accent so disdainfully French that I could hardly understand it. I had expected him to veer into an accent unfailingly American. Not so. His driving, incidentally, was unbelievably erratic. At one point he sped round a tight corner and skidded several feet through a puddle. While I clutched the seat in horror he expressed his disdain for the weather, entirely responsible, he felt, for the near-accident. Today, despite all the Francophones around me, the rain, it occurred to me, felt English enough – although much later, long after the Chinatown incident, when I had stood in my fourth puddle, I realised that it doesn’t even rain that much in England anymore. The sky, however, was Sussex grey, with no variations detected.

I left the hotel early and, it being Sunday, the city was very quiet. It was very similar, actually, right down to the weather, to my first morning in Portland last year. After Portland (the most wonderful city, I thought, but one for which I was hopelessly unprepared) I determined that this year I would investigate a little about the city in advance. Where to go, what to see, where to drink, that kind of thing. I would arrive clued up and leave a connoisseur. I don’t know who organises the CHI conferences, but whoever they are they must really love their indie rock. Anyone able to name two cooler cities on the North American continent than Portland (Stephen Malkmus, The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney) or Montreal (Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, Stars)? No, me neither. But I saw little of that side of things in Portland and determined to do so here. Now, of course, I did no research whatsoever, which explains my disorganised wanderings earlier.

Actually, that’s a lie. I bought a copy of the Rough Guide to Montreal. All the pages were bound in the wrong order. And the section on pubs, bars and shops was missing. The section on white-water rafting was provided twice, which I was grateful for, but overall felt somewhat cheated.

So having walked down through Old Montreal, down to the river, and back up through Chinatown, I eventually found the more up-market shops below the ‘mountain’ where all pretence of sophistication and elegance receded and I found what, in my secret heart, I was really hoping for. Yup, a Gap and an HMV. You travel right across the world, I hear you saying. Well, yup. But Gap is much cheaper here. Really, much cheaper.

Gap is cheaper in Canada than in Britain. It’s for insights like that that you read this blog, I know. More cultural observations tomorrow, if you can wait.

Of Montreal…

Posted 23 Apr 2006 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Travel

So far Montreal remains mostly unseen, but for the view out of my window.

I’m spending the next week here and flew out yesterday afternoon from Heathrow, an easy, restful six hour flight which was made so much easier by the fact that I bagged the emergency door seats, hurray. Under this arrangement, I am obliged to be helpful in the event of a disaster, and also allowed to stretch my feet out theatrically when there isn’t, glancing at other, less fortunate passengers as I do so, as if to say, ‘Aaah. What a pleasure it is to stretch’. As it happens, stretching alone gets pretty boring across six hours, so I varied the experience with the inflight movies and lots of optimistic watching out of the window.

Two observations in this latter respect. Firstly, why do plane designers have to place the windows ever so slightly behind you, at shoulder level, so that in order to watch England drop away and the receding landscape, it is necessary to crane one’s neck painfully and pull a muscle in the process? Secondly, as much fun as flying is, there really is fuck all in the Atlantic ocean besides a lot of water and a bunch of fish too small to be seen from several thousand metres up. Ships and fishing boats? Not that I can see. Majestic blue whales, sharks arcing out of the water? Nope. Volcanic islands? Nah. Big waves? Didn’t even see any of them. When we passed Iceland we were above the clouds, if indeed we passed it all, and after that there’s not much to look forward ’til Greenland.

And I’m not even sure that I saw Greenland, actually. It might have just been the tip of Canada. Either way, a few hours in I glanced out of the window and saw far below me what I thought was just a big wave, a big crest of surf. It was, I realised, ice, and shortly after a long, crisp curve of white filled half of the window and we negotiated a long coast of ice, mountain and snow which, although at times we veered away over the blue ocean again, was the most enormous, least hospitable landscape imaginable. Quite wonderful to watch. By the time we dropped down below the tree line we had, sadly, ascended above clouds again, so I didn’t see anything else ’til Montreal, which looked from the plane window a huge, impressive and grey city, quite unlike anything in Britain.

Waking up this morning, having come straight to my hotel and crashed into bed last night, the city remains grey from my twelfth floor window. But it also looks vast, odd and exciting. Which is why, having had breakfast, I’m about to go and have a look around it.

mexico and hove

Posted 16 Sep 2005 — by Jonathan
Category General

Some absolutely magnificent shots of Mexico City courtesy of a local Helicopter pilot, here, and well worth a look – I shan’t copy and paste any of the images here because they’re, well, not mine; but they’re quite stunning. The shanty towns and the modern prefabs an unbelievable contrast to the opulence of the rich half of the city and the stunning scenery, all sweeping curves, blue skies and volcanic promise. Thanks to JennyCide for the link.

Mexico City at Wikipedia

Similarly architecturally, here’s a kind-of, sort-of interesting article about the mooted Gehry building in Hove from why-did-you-bother-new-Guardian-columnist Simon Jenkins.

“Walk west along the Brighton seafront. Ignore the horror of the conference centre. Ignore the sad carcass of the doomed West Pier. Ignore the detritus of half a century of dud town planning.

At the old Hove boundary your spirit starts to lift. At stately Brunswick Terrace order is restored. Brunswick Square washes inland on a tide of billowing stucco, one of the noblest squares in England. At Adelaide Crescent is a crescendo of architecture and landscape which surpasses anything in Bath. Hove by the sea is, in Betjeman’s words, a rare English town one could safely call “her”. It is lush and beautiful.”

I hate articles (or books) that quote Betjemen. I’m looking forward to the Gehry building, though, even though it’s been watered down a bit from its original design.

some thoughts on portland, oregon

Posted 12 Apr 2005 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Travel

Portland feels like a pretty hip, creative city – on Sunday I jumped on one of the free trams to go to the convention centre where I was working for the week, and got only a few blocks before I spotted the Saturday market, which was worth stopping for. It was a small, vibrant market reminiscent of the one at Camden Lock – all incense burning, carved wooden toys and stalls selling vegetarian food.


I spotted someone wearing a t-shirt which read ‘Keep Portland Weird’. The city is full of home-brew bars, too; I had a couple of excellent drinks in a place named ‘Rock Bottom’. Whenever they do those ‘most liveable city’ lists, Portland is invariably near the top.

But elsewhere I saw someone with a cardboard sign which read ‘unable to work, too nervous to steal’. Quite a lot of people begging, actually, but then Oregon – for all Portland’s progressive tendencies – has had the highest unemployment rate in the US practically every month for the last three years, although things have improved in the last few months – in January 2004 there were 158,841 Oregonians without jobs. A year on the number was down to 131,805, which is better without being inspiring. Little wonder that the Republicans didn’t get a look in in the election last year.

I don’t really suffer from wanderlust, but when I’m in a new place I want to find out everything I can about a place; I spent a few hours skimming through books on the area in Borders but I didn’t find anything that really appealed, although there’s a book by Chuck Palahniuk (who wrote Fight Club), entitled ‘Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk Through Portland, Oregon’, which sets out to focus on Portland’s capacity for supporting an alternative lifestyle; in fact it just seemed to chronicle his various experiences with sex-workers and strippers. Wooo.

Back on the tram, the heavily accented announcements, saying ‘Please provide seats for seniors and riders with disabilities’ comes out, every time, as ‘please provide seats for seniors and writers with disabilities’.

Like I said, it’s an arty city.


Posted 20 Mar 2005 — by Jonathan
Category Environment


The peculiar, colourful, boxy towns which teeter on grey rock in front of a jagged claw of ice and ahead of a brilliant, forbidding blue sea, the Inuit towns of Greenland and Alaska – something about them absolutely grabs me like no other landscape. I don’t think I even knew what these towns looked like – or had given no thought to it – ’til I chanced upon a few TV programmes and chapters in books about them, but they gripped me immediately; something about the colour and the desperation – something about the desolation.

Last night I happened to watch two excellent TV programmes, a double bill of Nick Middleton’s excellent Surviving Extremes series, which pit the Oxbridge don and travel writer against the world’s most inhospitable climates. His trek through the forests of Congo were remarkable enough (where the forest, at it’s densest, is so impenetrable that it can take ten minutes for a raindrop to reach the forest floor), but his month in Greenland was breathtaking, whether fishing for birds with a long net on the steep side of an ice-clad cliff or being forced to sample raw seal liver.


The society was so singular, so unique, so finely skewed between wilderness and civilisation. At one point Middleton, aghast, looked on as Inuits sat on a sheet of blood stained snow and ate a local speciality; a seal carcass is stuffed with birds, buried in the ice for six months, and devoured raw.

The entire programme was every bit as horrifying and fascinating as that suggests.

xlab in santorini

Posted 08 Oct 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Daft

When me and Victoria planned our summer holiday last year we considered going to Santorini, one of the more interesting Greek Islands, having a history peppered with earthquakes and volcanoes and having – as a result – perthaps the most amazing geography in the region.

Phil, over at his xlab blog has just returned from his holiday, and posts some fascinating stuff about the island and some stunning photographs, here.

I would probably have never blogged this were it not for the fact that it chimes in with the fact that my recent reading has been Robert Harris’s pretty-good ‘Pompeii’ and that I’ve got at home, waiting to be viewed, a video of the most recent one of those British Isles: A Natural History programmes, which deals with volcanoes, too – not to mention all the excitement about Mt. St Helens – so I’m naturally interested.

None of which, obviously, is quite as exciting as this, which happens every year in Kefalonia, and prompted me to want very much to go there, too:

“High on the hill top above the resort of Katelios between August 6th and 15th a large number of small harmless snakes have been making their appearance for centuries in the church of Panayia of Langouvarda and in the village of Arginia higher up the slopes of Mount Ainos. The original church of Langouvarda was burned in 1945 and completely destroyed in the earthquakes of 1953. From the night of August 6th ‘telescopus fallax’ known as the cat snake appears in and around the church’s courtyard, walls and bell tower. The inhabitants of the villages consider them to be holy, collecting these harmless creatures and setting them in front of the silver icon of the ‘Virgin of the Snakes’. After the festival on the 15th August these honoured guests leave until the same time next year. Some say it’s a miracle, whilst others believe the wet damp route that runs from the fresh water spring in Arginia down the ravine to Markopoulo is a migratory path. Locals consider their presence as a good omen for the coming year. During the German occupation in the second world war and the earthquake of 1953 the snakes failed to appear.”

Elsewhere in the hot world, Anne-So and Sam are diving in Egypt at the moment, and it seems that yesterday’s atrocities occurred quite near to where they’re staying. Don’t be blown up, AS and Sam!

High Tide

Posted 09 Jun 2004 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Environment

Currently reading ‘High Tide: News From a Warming World’ by Mark Lynas, and really enjoying it – it’s wonderfully clear and accessible on a subject I know very little about, and beautifully written; Lynas conjures some wonderful images.

He writes very movingly about the pacific island of Funafuti, part of Tuvula, which is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world, and which, due to rising oceans, is basically disappearing underwater. At the time of his writing the island had entered into an arrangement with New Zealand to start sending 75 people a year there – not exactly an urgent evacuation, but the long term prognosis is unequivocal. Within the next ten to fifteen years they will have to move.

Lynas meets Panapese Nelisone, who is touchy on the matter. Lynas writes

“As we finished the conversation, I made the mistake of using the word ‘evacuation’. He broke in sharply: ‘It’s not an evacuation. We have not yet reached the stage where we must evacuate people. We know there is the threat of global warming, and the government doesn’t want to sit back and do nothing. So this is a migration programme, a gradual kind of thing over time, not an evacuation as such, where we have to move people”.

Lynas’s descriptions are wonderful, and it is awful to think that in perhaps 30 years the Island will have dissapeared.

“Once the harsh sunlight began to soften a little, I wandered outside to explore. A hundred metres on my left was the lagoon, fringed by a narrow beach, the water mottled with purples and light blues where the sea floor alternated between sand and rock. A few women stood chatting in the water, only their heads showing above the rippled surface – looking as natural as old ladies passing the time of day at a London bus stop. Every now and then someone would heave themselves out of the sea fully-clothed, and set off, dripping, back to their house. I marvelled at their almost amphibious lifestyle – being wet or dry made little difference in this equatorial heat”.

Aerial view of Funafuti Island, Tuvalu, May 2002 (Photo: Bob Girdo)

‘My thinking’, says the former Prime Minister of Tavulu, ‘is that now is the time for preparing a place so that when people move they can move with their traditions, their customs and their culture. Some people say no, no it won’t happen – they don’t believe in it. So I say, well, which one would you like – would you like to stay here and then every one of us will die and there will be no more Tuvaleans? Or that we prepare and move to another place where we can survive? … But I want to stay on this Island, you know. I will go down with Tavalu. This is my thinking.’

Lynas tells a lovely story about Toaripi, met on the beach one day by some unsuspecting American squaddies who “asked him to do their laundry, without realising that they were speaking to the country’s Governer-General”. Of course, Lynas writes, he happily obliged.

Since Lynas’s book was written the migration programme continues. Australia continues to refuse to help, or ratify the Kyoto agreement. The most recent article I found on the subject is here

There is a rather more cheerful page on the Islands here, from which the above photo was taken. Lynas’s blog is at