Friday, 28 February 2014

Ukraine - looking back a bit

On New Year's Day this year sig other and I were invited by some friends to meet three young Ukrainian women who were staying with them. Communication was difficult, as the three did not really speak English or French. They could all understand Russian however, and one of them spoke it quite well (Ukrainians are mostly not bilingual, whatever you might have read recently), so I was recruited to speak my bad Russian and native English and aid communication. The three were from Lviv in western Ukraine, were Catholic, and were in Strasbourg for the annual pilgrimage of young people associated with the Taize community. Even then they were horrified by what was going on in their country. They were keen to be part of the EU, although when it was mildly suggested to them that they would be poor relations as new members, and quite possibly subjected to discriminatory rulings by some member states, as Bulgaria and Romania have been, they were given pause. They felt that Russia was interfering in their country. On the regions and people of the east and south of this big country, who mostly speak only Russian, these women had no view. It was another country to them. I was interested in that. (It's how I feel about Scotland).

Ten years ago, in 2004, there were three elections in Ukraine. For the first of them, in October, I was part of the election observation team. I was deployed in a village not far from Kiev, where people spoke Ukrainian and where the cows came home at night. In the distance, on the horizon, shale oil was burning. No fracking here. Nature has already done it. Kiev itself was given over to propaganda banners and displays for Yanukovych. The Orange Revolution was starting. That election was inconclusive. By then I had acquired some experience in election observation. You report what you see, and what people say in answer to your questions, not what you have read in the media is going on. There was a second election, in November, at which I was not present, and a third, on 26th December, for which I was part of the team, and was deployed to Odessa. In the south, mild weather, no snow, forever linked in my mind's eye with the Eisenstein film. Everyone spoke Russian. No sign of the Orange people. A strange Christmas it was. Of course, it was not Christmas there. That happens in January.

Back in Kiev, the streets were camped out with Orange people. A seductive movement, but it was clear to me from what was being said (I can mostly understand Ukrainian though can't speak it) and from the literature on the stalls, that the European far right were friends to this movement, that Holocaust denial was present, and that the fever-eyed young men shouting in the streets were fuelled not only by whatever uppers were available in Ukraine at that time but by a measure of Jew-hatred along with nationalism. Not a pretty sight. And not what was mostly being reported in the West at the time.

"Orange gangsters", someone at a polling station described them to me.

Back in the UK I wrote something in my column in the local newspaper, noting that the election was about the freest and fairest I had seen. Boy was I denounced. A most unpleasant fellow named Peter Shutak stopped only just short of a public death threat. He had not been there of course, but knew far better than I did what had been observed there.

A little later, a delegation of Ukrainian MPs visited the UK. Cross-party. I invited them to the constituency, and they were pleased to visit. We took them to the Loch Fyne restaurant in Reading, which they enjoyed very much, and to the Ukrainian club. Also invited was a nice Ukrainian lady called Snejana who lived in Reading and who helped with interpreting, and a Reading trade unionist and Labour Party member named Mick Pollek, Ukrainian by family origin and associated with the Ukrainian club, also a Ukrainian speaker.

The meeting at the Ukrainian club in Reading was an interesting one. Mick Pollek dashed in with some Orange banners with the slogan of the time, "Tak!" ("Yes!"). What he had failed to ascertain was that the cross-party delegation of Ukrainian MPs included no Orange members. Not one. It did include a communist, and a member of what is now the Party of the Regions, neither of whom was exactly enamoured of the Orange people. Coffee and Ukrainian snacks were consumed. Speeches were made in Ukrainian, which were not fully understood by all the delegation. Then the Reading Ukrainians began to sing nationalist songs. The communist and the Regions bloke stood stony-faced and silent throughout. How to get it very very wrong. I didn't care. I had simply offered the hospitality of the constituency to visitors from Ukraine, whatever their political complexion. Pollek and his ilk had never even asked about the make-up of the delegation, and had not put a single question to me as a recent visitor to Ukraine who had had meetings with both government and opposition. Part of the political establishment in Reading got it very very wrong.

That was ten years ago. Do we understand Ukraine any better now? Does it matter?  The political establishment then had made up its mind what was going on. They got it wrong. Ukraine was not helped by that.

I would say this to those who are in politics - go there. Go to Ukraine, go to whatever place you are minded to pontificate about. Learn its language. Read its history. Talk with those who know about these things.

How much has changed in ten years?

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Ingrid Betancourt, 'Meme le Silence a Une Fin' (Even Silence Has an End)

Do you remember the story of this woman, a Colombian senator, captured by guerrillas in the Colombian jungle and held for over six years? This is it, as told by her. Read my Goodreads review.

A little background perhaps: Ingrid Betancourt was born in Colombia and grew up in France. In adult life she returned to Colombia and became politically active. She became a senator, and then a candidate for president of the country under a green and anti-corruption ticket. She was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas and spent over six years as a hostage in the Colombian jungle. She and others were freed in 2008 in an operation by the Colombian military, after a long campaign by hostages' families and various senior figures in Colombia and France, including then President Sarkozy of France. This is a long book, and could certainly have been shortened, but I was never bored, and in fact found it utterly compelling. I'm not sure why. Constant route marches, changing of camp commandants, shifting relations among the FARC and also among the hostages, the death of her father while she was in captivity, her husband's abandonment of her, which she learned about on the radio - none of this should have kept me hooked, but it did. She is bilingual in Spanish and French, and wrote the book in French, the language I read it in - it has been translated into several other languages, including English and German -  and her writing has the slightly unnaturally bright clarity of that of a person who is focusing on the language itself as well as on the story being told. I would say - read this book,and make up your mind. A faraway country of which we know little, indeed. Betancourt herself is not an especially attractive character; she certainly seems to have a sense of entitlement and to hav failed to understand other hostages' resentment of it, and mostly not to have seen her captors, at least the male ones, as human at all. Her possible lack of self-awareness permits her to portray all this very frankly and not to try and make herself out as less selfish and arrogant than she was. All told, fascinating, and I am glad I read it. I'd like to know what she is doing now.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Anthony Trollope, 'Barchester Towers'

I have read 'The Warden', the first in the Barsetshire series, and thought it was OK, a good taster. This however is hilarious. Here is my Goodreads review:

Splendid stuff. Hilariously funny at times, superbly plotted, highly political. Sexy too, a bit to my surprise. No way of understanding the Church of England without reading this - even though it was written well over a century ago. I loved it. His editorialising took some getting used to to begin with - he indicates from time to time that such and such a character is expepcting this or that to happen but is bound for disappointment - but I grew to expect and enjoy it.  This is one to come back to. But not least, I shall be reading on. There should be a Facebook quiz "Which 'Barchester Towers' character are you?" I want to be Madeleine Neroni or Bertie Stanhope.

PIE and Shirley

I am old enough to remember the "underground" press of the 1970s, the National Council for Civil Liberties, and the Paedophile Information Exchange, whose affiliation to the NCCL (a fairly mainstream organisation even then) was highly controversial at the time. However, the culture then was different. People on the left often believed in civil liberties and freedom of expression in a way that they do not tend to now, being too busy boycotting and divesting Israeli universities and fizzy drinks to exchange much that is useful in the way of ideas. Therefore, those who believed in "child love" (as I seem to remember it being called) were tolerated (and were very careful to call their organisation an "information" exchange, rather than, you know, porn swapping or anything of that sort.) It should be remembered that the PIE was never mainstream, and was always controversial. Some associated with it wanted the age of consent to be reduced to 10 - which is what it was in Victorian times, let us not forget - others made more general statements condemning persecution of people because of whom they loved. Now all this has come back to smack Harriet Harman, then chair of the NCCL and now deputy leader of the Labour Party, in the face. I feel sorry for her. She, like some now-elderly former DJs and television presenters, is suffering for having been around long enough to live through a radical change of culture.

Shirley Temple died the other day at the age of 85. She was possibly the most famous Hollywood child star there has ever been, and unlike most child stars she appeared to have come through the system relatively unscathed. Like most, however, her career more or less disappeared when puberty arrived. Unlike most, she went on to a political career and a great deal of respect internationally. When she died a couple of clips were shown almost universally, of her aged about three. She was not dressed provocatively, but sugar-sweet in frills. However, even those clips give pause, especially the one shown here, which shows her interacting with older men in ways which would be at least questionable today. Some of her films are never shown now, and some of what is still able to be shown is quite shocking by today's standards. Grown men pawing at a little girl for the entertainment of the public? OK in the 1930s. Not now. Good.

Oh and Shirley was curly. Vive la curly.

Friday, 21 February 2014

the game has changed in Venezuela

thugh not radically, because state-sponsored terrorism has been going on there since at least the time of St Chavez. I can remember a time when half of Latin America was under dictatorship of one kind or another, and state-sponsored death squads were, it seemed at times, the norm. I thought we were moving away from that, and from the evil clandestine role at times played by the US in some of these countries. But here it is again. And let's not forget - if a city in Venezuela with 645,000 inhabitants can be "taken off the internet" so that Twitter and other intelligence cannot get out, this can be done elsewhere, and will be. So wake up and look around you. This blog for instance is under threat. Listen, disseminate, look around you.  There is no longer any such thing as " a faraway country of which we know little".

Sunday, 16 February 2014

measles map

disgraced and later struck-off doctor Andrew Wakefield, who maintained for many years that the triple vaccine, "MMR" against measles, mumps and rubella caused autism, now lives in America, where he continues to maintain that view, and where he is supported by various autism support groups. I saw at first hand a number of years ago parents' fear for their children which led them to put not only their own children's health, but public health in general, at risk by refusing to have their children vaccinated. I have met people in more recent years who refuse to accept that they are thus endangering public health, including that of their own chidren if the general health of the nation is a matter of indifference to them. Some years on, it is clear that in parts of Africa, where vaccination rates have been and remain low (not because of parents' wishes) measles infection is little changed (a very poor show in itself) measles clusters have appeared in a number of more affluent parts of the world. The Sunday Times (£) has something to say about this today.Wakefield is largely responsible for this damage to public health, including deaths and crippling disability. He may be/have been sincere, but still - it does smack of lives sacrificed to ideology. Those of us who comment on these matters are often asked to declare an interest as regards their own families. Well, I can do that. My children are too old for the MMR, though the single vaccine for measles was available. So they did not have measles but they did have mumps and rubella. If the MMR vaccine had been available they certainly would have had it.  

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

RIP Mark Bennett

picture: Brixton Blog
Very sorry to hear of the untimely death of Mark Bennett, Mayor of Lambeth, at the age of 43. We didn't know each other very well, but we collaborated on occasion over the years, and I thought he was very good news indeed, and a brilliant Mayor of Lambeth. So sorry Mark, and so sorry for your family and loved ones. The good ones are taken from us first.