Saturday, August 30, 2014

Wee Free Freedom! (Last part)

Things have been hotting up north of the border. 

It appears that speakers from both sides of the independence debate are getting shouted down at public meetings and in some cases having things thrown at them. With only days to go before the referendum, this is unnecessary and really does not help either side, succeeding only in entrenching and dividing people.
It's also a shame, because the debate on the subject has become much more interesting and nuanced over the past few months, and it's that debate that I want to hear, as it raises issues about democracy and representation for the whole of the UK, not just Scotland.
It boils down to one simple question, really: Who do we want to represent us politically? This, in turn, leads us to ask Tony Benn's 5 Questions regarding power.

What has arisen, I think, is that the 'Yes' camp is far more varied in what it wants from independence than is sometimes represented in the media. Certainly, it would appear that people living in the Shetlands, the Orkneys and the Hebrides either regard Holyrood as being no better than Westminster, or would like to have power devolved more directly to them. By contrast, the 'Better Together' (a.k.a. 'No') Camp seem to be far more homogeneous, to their detriment. Why their detriment? Because they have painted themselves into a corner in some ways: they cannot talk about the issues regarding representation without actually providing reasons to vote for independence.
So, who should be our representatives? Should we be tied in perpetuity to what is in effect a  two-party system? Must we get stuck with politicians who are more obsessed with a party stance and getting elected than actually doing the job to which they have been elected - governing on our behalf? Who controls the economy? Why should a relatively small group of people have so much power and to what extent are they accountable (or not) to the people?
The very best of the debate (and that is most certainly not the televised grandstanding between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling) has asked these questions, and they are pertinent to life within the whole of the UK. With the economy 'recovering' (for whom?), house prices are rising at absurd levels; prices are rising, while wages remain relatively stagnant; The NHS is being privatised by stealth, while it has become abundantly clear that the privatisation of our resources and industries has not turned us into a nation of shareholder, but instead allowed those shares to be owned by overseas investors; The very people who were culpable to a large extent for the financial disasters of 2008-9 are still in position and in fact have done very well from downturn; And the current government seems to be in thrall to the money.
And yet nowhere in England or in Wales is anyone really questioning the status quo. Only in Scotland are these questions being raised, debated and considered.
Quite honestly, given the few issues I've put above, who wouldn't want independence?
Well, I've stated before that I'm agnostic on the issue. And besides, I don't get to vote on the thing.
I think there are two questions that anyone pondering whether to vote 'yes' can ask. They are 'How?' and 'When?', and these work when put to any of the proposals laid out by either side. For example, the one about currency - 'How will we use the pound post-independence?' (a question that to my mind has not been satisfactorily answered by either side), and 'when will this happen?'
If all of the 'How' and 'when' questions can be answered satisfactorily and clearly, then I think that a 'yes' vote is actually a no-brainer. People want assurance, but assurance on such an issue is not enough -a concrete road map of what is most likely to happen will be the thing to win the issue, even if some of what may be will  involve difficulty and even hardship for a time.
Finally, just one thought: There are times, when you don't know what to do and you can't decide, that you've got to take a punt.
Good luck to all of us.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Apologies for the long hiatus in writing. I suppose I should apologise for interrupting the silence with writing.
I have found myself, over the last few months, at a loss as to what to say about anything: it seemed every time I put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, stale, lumpen phrases would emerge, ruining the pristine whiteness of the page or screen with a kind of grey detritus. Of course, what we write and say are as reflections of our mental state, supposedly, so I can only assume that my dominant mode of thought has been stale, lumpen and grey. A bit like a dead whale or something. The thing with dead whales is, given the right conditions, they eventually explode.
Now, I'm not saying that my mind is on the verge of blowing up and covering all and sundry with putrid viscera, although you may disagree by the time you reach the end of this article. Rather, I'm writing in reaction to a local something that has left me feeling somewhat beslimed.
I could write about Syria, and Iraq, and Gaza, and Israel, and the whole damn mess of the Middle East, and in fact, I will later; I could write about the Scottish Independence Vote further, and I still have a little more to say about it, in fact; I could write about Ukraine and Russia, or Cops and Residents in Ferguson, MO.
I could write about all these, and mine would be just another little voice, another little article, in the great sea of voices, the clamouring great winedark ocean of opinion.
Instead, I'm going to write about tribes. Or rather, not: I'm going to respond to some spectacularly ill-judged and misinformed statements about 'tribes' that I and several hundred others had the misfortune to be in the presence of some little while ago. First off, would you consider yourself to belong to a tribe? What is a tribe, anyway? Is it the same as a family or a clan? Is it a group of like-minded families gathered together in the name of communal protection? Is it a religious affiliation? Is it a gang? Is it a bunch of people who share the same workspace, or do the same job?
I happen to think the word 'tribe' has tremendous connotations attached to it, and I don't mean 'tremendous' in a good way. It smacks of colonialism to my mind: It has the whiff of a mildewed solar topee attached to it, of an elderly man with extravagant moustaches and a fly swatter made from an elephant's tail regaling someone with tales of the Raj from his retirement villa in Eastbourne. It implies, even confers, a kind of inferiority to anyone so apparently unfortunate as to be assigned to a tribe. The word conjures up images of savages who need to be quelled, educated and conformed. Hence my tendency to squirm whenever I hear it being used.
So you can imagine my discomfort and slight shock when I heard someone say the following: 'In Africa, people belong to different tribes and if they meet, they fight'.
Yes. Right.
I mean, erk.
This statement seems to have come freshly packaged, hot and steaming, straight out of the 1930s. It ignores the fact that Africa consists of more than one country, for starters. It ignores the demarcations of religion, language, borders, culture and politics and jumps for the lumpen blitheness of 'tribes'.
Thankfully, nothing was mentioned about 'waving spears' or 'heathen savages', so thank God for small mercies.
There was, however, more in this vein.
How about this?
'The Sunnis are a tribe. The Shia are a tribe. ISIS is a tribe.'
Yes. Right.
I mean, erk.
Where do you start with this kind of misguided statement? ISIS are not a tribe. Try 'Murderous bunch of apostate millennialist loonbars', and you'd be closer to the mark. But tribe they are not. In fact, they're very much an Equal Opportunities murderous bunch of loonbars, as they will allow anyone to behead somebody as long as they're of a Sunni disposition.
So are the Sunnis and Shias tribes? Er, no, they're sects of Islam, much in the same way that Protestants and Catholics are sects. Along with Alevis, Alawites, Wahabbis, Ba'hai........
In short, the ongoing wars of the Middle East are more on sectarian lines, yet even then that is too simplistic an interpretation. It certainly isn't however, about tribes ganging up on each other.
The speaker hadn't finished there, however.
Here's another little (vintage) nugget:
'In Yugoslavia, the tribes started killing each other there, and look how many died.'
Yes. Right.
I mean, erk.
I'm pretty sure the Bosnians, Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians and Montenegrins would not see themselves as 'tribes'. When it fractured after the end of the cold war, it split along spurious ethnic and religious lines - in particular between the Orthodox Serbs and the Muslim Bosnians. I say 'spurious' ethnicity because there's precious little evidence to suggest that any of the five nationalities is ethnically different - and indeed, they speak pretty much the same language!
So, a tribe isn't about ethnicity, or family, or language, or culture, or religion (which is admittedly as aspect of culture). Yet tribes, apparently, are a cause of tension, unrest, fear, destruction and death, at least according to the speaker I had the misfortune to be in the vicinity of.
The overall message that the person speaking was I think trying to get across, and failing rather spectacularly, was this: Tribes Kill Other Tribes.
No, they don't. People Kill People. Just because the person being murdered happens to belong to a different 'tribe' doesn't mean it's a 'tribal' thing. And instead of the negatively-freighted word 'tribe', why not use 'group' or 'gang' or, bigger still, 'community' or 'nation'? The speaker could have. After all, if 'tribe' just means 'a collection of people with more or less common affiliation of one kind or other', then that covers a multitude of sins, as it were.
And talking of tribes is so belittling - call them what they are. People.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Istanbul! seven things I noticed...

A post a little bit after the event, but later is better than never...
My girlfriend, Sue, and I spent five days in the Big Stan during the Easter holidays, and had a great time. It's been four and a bit years since I was last there, but the changes have been really noticeable. Just thought I'd share what was most memorable:
..and a collage of the five hundred or so pics I took.
1) The Metro System
This was only really properly getting under way back in 2009, and I remember when I first boarded the original line from Atakoy to Aksaray back in the 90's. I have to say that, as far as the main centres are concerned, this is a really well-conceived and joined-up, something I never thought I would say about the state of Istanbul's traffic twenty years ago. I even risked the dodgy plumbing of the Mamaray, the line going under the sea between Sirkeci and Kadikoy, and was genuinely astonished by the speed of the service. The Istanbul travel card (similar to an Oyster Card in London) was also a definite plus. 
Having said that, from the journeys I did, it seems that it is an effective service only for certain, wealthier parts of the city.
2) Kadikoy
It's been absolutely yonks since I last went there, and I was pleasantly surprised by it - the Carsi is an excellent area of small lanes full of different types of food shops, and the restaurant and bar scene is much livelier than it once was.
3) Kumkapi
Disappointing, with the exception of the live street music - I found the menus a bit uninspiring, and the food wasn't much cop, with the exception of some genuinely exquisite fresh mackerel fillets. The place hasn't aged well.
4) Wine prices
What the HELL is going on with the price of wine?? It's ridiculous: over 40 quid for a mediocre bottle! Just a few years ago, Turkey had a fledgling wine industry that was developing into something bold and interesting - now, the government seems determined to strangle it. Gone, it seems, are the days of buying a bottle of Dog Killer for about 50p.
5) The underground bins, and the relative cleanliness
Seems a bit dumb, but the underground bins in Sultanahmet are a huge improvement on the stinking cat-ridden skips that blocked every corner of a few years ago. The tourist areas are also definitely way cleaner than before.
6) The range of tourists
Again, this may seem odd, but back in the mid nineties, virtually all the tourists were Europeans, Americans, and Japanese: Now, just wandering around the main tourist drags is extraordinarily eclectic, with a significant number of visitors from all round the Middle East, possibly because of the Magnificent Century factor.
7) A different kind of edge
This is a bit hard to quantify, but it was something that I felt - Istanbul seemed to have a different atmosphere in the people on the street. It was as if its febrile air of hustle and trade had been subtly changed to have something else, a tension that was waiting to be released, a sensation of almost imperceptible fear. The only way I can express it is that it was as if the whole city was keeping one eye over its shoulder to check who could be listening. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

A lost world...

A  very short post, at least in terms of word count. I was reading an interesting article in The Guardian about maps and how we're starting to lose paper-based versions of them thanks to our various bits of electronic gadgetry and flim-flammery, and by happy chance I came across an old atlas on my dad's bookshelf. It was Phillip's Crown Atlas, published in:
Published just on the cusp of the Second World War. It must have belonged to my grandad originally, but looking through, I couldn't help but notice how much had changed, how many things had gone, or had come into existence. There are the obvious things, such as the red on the map denoting the Empire:

Then there are the Lost Counties of England:

Some things are shocking - this map of Africa shows the extent of its carving-up by European powers:

The ones I found strongly disturbing, by dint of hindsight, were these maps of Czechoslovakia, marked 'Provisional Borders':

It all goes to show that nations change and borders don't always remain the same - salutary for what is happening around us nowadays.

Monday, March 31, 2014

6 Reasons for The AKP's strengths.

I've been watching events unfold in Turkey over the past few weeks with a sense of trepidation, and yesterday's municipal elections have done nothing to alleviate this. It would appear, on the face of it, that the Turkish Republic may be facing a slide into autocratic, one-party (or, more pertinently one-man) rule. The ruling AKP has taken approximately 47% of the vote on a very high turnout, with the next largest party, the CHP, trailing well behind on 29%. PM Erdogan has taken this election as very much a mandate on him personally, and will almost certainly aim for a run at the presidency, or possibly change the rules in his favour and get another term as Prime Minister, later in the year. More worryingly, his rhetoric is increasingly belligerent and hostile, and promises lurid revenge against all those he typifies as 'traitors' and 'enemies of the state'. This, from a man who has openly admitted to hoarding millions of dollars in his home, who has admitted that his administration has discussed setting up a false flag operation in Syria with the intention of invading - things that, in another country, would lead to the resignation of the government.
So how on earth is this party, and this man, still in power?
There are six key points, I think, and one thing to remember about the AKP: They are not a political party that consists of backwood yokels - instead, they are one of the most efficient, up-to-date, and skilful political machines out there. Here are the six things that have made them strong.

1. They know, understand, and appeal to their electoral base.

The AKP, and its predecessor Refah, spent a lot of time connecting with the towns and villages of Anatolia, essentially listening to their needs, their fears and worries, and promising that they would be addressed. Anatolia is far more conservative and pious that the big cities, but it is also the workforce that power places like Istanbul and Izmir. These incomers (and migration to Istanbul alone is estimated at least 1,000 people a week) bring their politics with them, obviously - it makes sense to catch the poor because their votes translate directly into power. This is something that other parties have missed, because....

2.The Anatolian electoral hinterland that comprises this base has been ignored by mainstream politicians for decades.

During my time in Turkey, it was obvious that Anatolia, for the politicians, might as well have been Outer Mongolia. MPs were big on promises, but short on outcomes, and the lot of the average villager never improved. Despite the modernisation of the cities and tourist regions, you don't need to go far into the hinterland to realise that much of the country is still developing. The mass of voters were regarded as little better than obedient serfs, who would vote for whomever they were told to vote for. This has come to bite the political parties firmly on the backside, and none of them really seem to know what to do. Why?.....

3.The lack of a credible alternative.

The opposition is hopelessly divided and doesn't really fill one with confidence: instead, it's the same tired faces with their own history of scandals, graft and corruption. They also seem to fall back on an assumption that, were they ever to regain power, they would be able to do everything back in the old way. They have not grasped the reality that the AKP have changed the game entirely. They have failed to adapt, have presented no credible challenge, and are at least partially culpable for the domination of the political scene that Erdogan enjoys.

4.The state's system of checks and measures, e.g. the media, an independent judiciary etc, have been subsumed and compromised by the AKP.

Because of the weakened opposition, Erdogan and the AKP have been able to sack members of the judiciary with impunity, block journalists from reporting, lock writers up and generally create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia that pervades all those who find themselves on the purlieus of the administration. A state where all parts of the system cannot work is a sick state and one that is doomed to fail sooner or later. The problem is that it will take decades for Turkey to rebuild, especially in terms of the trust needed.

5.Erdogan controls the traditional media. His electorate don't use online media.

Despite the fact that social media is widely used in Turkey, nevertheless the vast majority have no truck with online sources of information. They rely on TV, newspapers and radio, all of which, because of the way they have been filleted by the AKP, are supine in their news coverage and meek about reporting anything that may offend their political masters. Again, this is nothing new: during the 90's, TV channels were regularly closed down as a punishment for revealing something the political elite didn't like. The difference this time is that the media is largely complicit with the ruling party, rather than challenging and questioning. The electoral base of the AKP, being people who are generally speaking from backgrounds with less access to education, are less likely to question what their leaders are doing. And why should they? After all...

6.The AKP's electoral base feel they have benefitted economically and socially over the years of AKP rule.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the economy. From the perspective of the average AKP voter, they feel wealthier -there are more things in the shops, there is a boom in new building and infrastructure, there is seemingly greater access to jobs and money - and while that feelgood feeling persists, there is little likelihood that they are going to vote for anyone else. This, despite the fact that on average, the typical person is apparently worse off - however, when it comes to the very poorest, their lots have been made somewhat better. Not only that, these voters feel that they are being listened to, something that other politicians have failed to do again and again.
Yes, the economy is the key: the problem is that the Turkish economy is increasingly resembling an enormous Ponzi scheme, and, like the Spanish and Irish economies, is due to crash at some stage. It is simply unsustainable as it is, especially in light of the information being leaked about the kickbacks and bribery that seem to be the norm at the heart of the administration.

So, what will happen next? I fear that Erdogan will now feel he has carte blanche to go hunting for his enemies, and to increasingly take power into his hands alone. He doesn't care for democracy, just power. After all, he once said, 'Democracy is like a bus: Useful to take you where you want to go, but you can get off at your stop and make your way after that'. And that doesn't bode well for Turkey.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Shooting Zombies: How a game illustrates how I waste my time.

I've got a new game on my mobile phone. It's called Sniper Z. It's tremendous fun: you have a rifle and a limitless supply of bullets, and all you have to do is shoot zombies, who walk towards a red line in a disconcertingly casual way. They all look as if they're out for a gentle stroll on a bright sunday afternoon, right up to the moment when they get shot in a spray of blood.
Bang! Splat! Take that, zombie!
So why am I talking about it?
Because it is fun, but it's a distraction. Because ultimately it's tiring and futile, as you can never stop the innumerable tide of zombies, no matter how good a shot you are, or how long you play. And all of these things - fun, distracting, innumerable, tiring, futile - refer to how I approach arguments, ideas and situations when I could better employ myself focusing on just a few things. I spend time sniping at this thing or that point, at the oncoming torrent of what are ultimately, for me at least, things that are the walking dead - that is, things that have no value to me or give me anything positive - they just weary and finally, like a zombie, eat my brain.
How often do we spend time on 'zombie' events, or zombie arguments? As an example of the latter, let's take the current soi-disant debate on immigration. This is a zombie debate if ever there was one. Once it lumbers to its feet, it just trundles on and on, impervious to weapons and utterly pointless to fight, yet it's not really a worthwhile argument. You will always have immigration from one area to another, and that is that, full stop. But still the newspapers and media are stuffed with nonsense, and I have to endure Nigel Farage's pointless face on my TV screen.
Aaagh! Zombie!!
In fact, politicians tend to set up zombie issues in order to deflect attention from what's really going on. In the UK, for example, tropes on education, health and defence are long-distance zombies, with one lumbering to the fore for a while, before being supplanted by another. Arguing over these subjects is largely futile - instead, we would be better off working out who's started which undead brain-muncher going.
But also in, for want of a better term, real life, we are faced with our own personal zombies - getting resentful at work, for example, because of how the organisation works; frustration at the daily commute; worrying too much about what other people are (or aren't) thinking; Fretfully going back and forth to emails or Facebook, wondering why you haven't got any messages; The list of things, like the staggering ghastly corpses lurching towards you in the game, is endless.
We cannot beat every argument; However, we should also realise that we don't have to, as a lot of what we do when we engage with such things is genuinely pointless, even when, in the case of political arguments in my case, it can be fun. Instead, I suggest that instead of trying to pick off every zombie, and end up getting your brain eaten anyway, you stay still, look around, and find the real living things to aim towards. After all, why should we be ever surrounded by dead things when all we want to do is live?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Wee Free Freedom! (Again)

Well, since that last entry, it all appears to have kicked off in the press, just as I thought it might. What should have been a debate about national independence seems to be descending into Personality Politics and the stances of various parties. This is more than a shame, it's a disgrace, and one that will be costly to all people concerned, i.e. all of us. This issue is far too big to allow it to be decided solely by a slanging match.
Make no mistake, this will affect life on the south of the border too, and everyone in the UK needs more information than a 'He-said-this-and-he-said-that' bulletin on the 6 O'Clock news.
Will Scotland vote for independence come September? I don't know, although it looks set to be a close run thing. I think it will all boil down to who makes the most compelling economic argument - the problem for all concerned is that we are entering unknown territory vis-a-vis things like Currency union, EU membership, Debt, even how much Scottish Viewers may have to pay to watch the BBC, and it's all to easy for politicians to fall into entrenched roles.
Will Scotland go independent? I think it's probably a case of when rather than if: The I-word genie is well and truly out of the bottle, so it will come down to the nitty gritty of the how it happens. As I said in my previous post, I remain to be convinced by the figures and the mechanisms for dealing with things like EU membership, which is probably what most people are waiting for.