Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A year in the life of

A small network called Never Again is showing how advances in technology can be used to create new societies based on friendship across continents, sharing skills and constructing hope from creativity.

I first got involved in Never Again before their event in February at the Imperial War Museum, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the genocide. From a day of seminars which had to focus on the negative, unbelievably terrible events, I have been impressed and inspired by the positive approach of this group of young people who, shocked by the failure of the world to stop genocide after the ‘never again’ rhetoric after the holocaust, decided to have a go at it themselves. Their approach is not unrealistic idealism, but very much rooted in ‘quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place’, as Rufus Jones put it so nicely.

Our Rwanda chapter’s major project since the anniversary has taken on one of the major difficulties in Rwandan society: how to teach its history. Education was used to divide Hutus and Tutsis for years before those divisions were used to provoke genocide. To talk about what happened in those hundred days inevitably raises difficult issues but by turning to artistic means of expression including song and poetry, Never Again were able to let ordinary people give voice to their feelings (pictured below). The fruits of the competition will be used in books and articles to help Rwandans find unity in their history and Never Again clubs have even been set up in schools across Rwanda.

Never Again’s latest venture has been to import Peace Baskets (pictured above) to Britain in what we hope will be the beginning of a successful trading link. The baskets, already a hit in America, are handwoven from papyrus reeds by Avega, a survivors’ organisation formed by women affected by the genocide. They symbolise the need for healing as well as helping to give themselves an income and support the many orphans left. With a lot of help, we finally have 40 of the baskets in Britain and are selling them to Friends for £10 each. All the money will go to Avega.

The most exciting thing I have found about Never Again is the way that, despite the fact that we are all busy, we can use our skills and ideas to make small contributions to bigger projects. For example, I have a background in student newspapers so could advise on the logisitics of starting one, while others are able to bring their experience of applying for grants from NGOs. This publication, which could be a newspaper and website, will provide another means of expression, a practice ground for young journalists and provide education on issues such as HIV prevention.

We are still learning about the best ways to communicate effectively between people in places as far apart as Rwanda, Britain, China and Canada, but have found disciplined email discussions to be very contructive. Never Again’s experience is showing how the world wide web can facilitate friendship and dialogue.

If you want a peace basket in time for Christmas, we can arrange collection in London and Oxford. Email claremariewhite at gmail dot com for more details.
More information at:

First published in The Friend

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Constructive journalism - an introduction

This was published in The Friend a long time ago now, but I did promise to post up some reflections on 'peace' journalism here and this is what I came up with. I'm still very excited by the idea

What do you expect from the news? Everything that's happened in the last day, hour or minute in a particular region or across the road? Some hope. The news we see appears through a prism, whether for reasons of time, commercial interest or because that's how news has always been done.

Journalists, peace workers and academics are working together to identify problems in conventional journalism, in particular war journalism. Using ideas from the sphere of conflict resolution, they aim to acknowledge journalism's place as a player rather than just an observer.

In the book Transcend and transform: an introduction to conflict work (Pluto Press), peace professor Johan Galtung outlines the theory that has been used by Transcend's conflict workshops all over the world. The accepted idea that conflicts can only end in stalemate, compromise or victory is challenged: he shows that creative solutions are possible if dialogue can be maintained and the other side's position valued. He sees a central role for the media in supporting dialogue and peace. Journalists Annabel McGoldrick and Jake Lynch have led the field in developing Galtung's ideas of 'peace journalism' as an antidote to war reporting.

The war in Iraq provides just one illustration of the scale of media manipulation by all sides in war, from the events leading to the Hutton inquiry to the televised ordeal of Kenneth Bigley. It is being left to political bodies, NGOs and even amateur writers on the internet to expose the truth hidden behind a wall of meaningless quotes put out by sophisticated governments. But as the mainstream media fail to truly reflect the complexities of the world, these exposures are lost in an increasingly polarised public domain.

While peace journalism gives no easy answers, it offers reporters alternative tools to cover conflict. One of the central messages from the sphere of conflict work is that the causes of violence are rarely simple. The standard 'cause and effect' narrative which often relies on authority figures implies short term causes for violence with the other side to blame. This can mislead the public:there is evidence it has in the case of Israel/Palestine.

Another lesson is that news should not just reflect two extremes in a conflict. There are always organisations, community leaders and ordinary people from the two sides working for peace whose voices, if heard, could suggest solutions. Giving voices to ordinary people also limits demonisation of 'the other side'. A nation seen from afar can look simple but we know that all Britons do not agree with Blair's war policy, so why should we assume all Israelis agree with Sharon? Portraying extremes in conflicts may give drama, but can have terrible consequences when each side forgets that the other is human.

McGoldrick and Lynch call for journalists to 'give name to all evil-doers', whether or not they are on 'your' side. They warn journalists not to rush into reporting horror stories without investigation, recognising that in the modern world the powerless, too, have learnt to manipulate the media:reports of massacres often turn out to be fabrications. Balance won't just come from saying that your side is as bad as their side, it comes from fairly presenting many truths and adding your picture to a spectrum of other pictures that show the world in its true complex state.

Peace journalism relies just as much on news selection as better reporting. McGoldrick and Lynch hope people can gain a 'literacy of peace' if conflict transformation ideas can be given space in the media. Peace does not come from treaties but from the willingness of ordinary people to engage in long processes and our media can help with that process if, in the words of Johan Galtung, they 'let a thousand dialogues blossom'.

More information at Reporting the world by Annabel McGoldrick and Jake Lynch is available from Pluto Press.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The final word on the US elections

... at least from this errant blogger

Gloom, depression and a flurry of e-mails hit Britain on the day that Bush won. We took it very personally indeed. But if the irritable response to The Guardian's Operation Clark County tells us anything, it is that the time has come, with a dignified smile, to disengage. Britain is not the 51st state and America would rather we didn't act like we were. Their eagerness to make this point borders on the insensitive: from tipping our tea into the sea to building the replacement twin towers at 1776 feet. There is a more important point. In becoming obsessed with a show that has nothing to do with us, we have become hopelessly distracted from our own democratic power.

We can't blame George Bush for taking us into war against Iraq. Our government did that. We paid for the warplanes and bombs. We committed violence and economic torture on Iraq for years before we actually invaded it on a case that most of us knew was false all along. It wasn't as if no-one noticed, but the protests came to nothing. How have we got to the state where military action that is, to this day, causing death and mayhem cannot be stopped by the democratic will of the people?

There is a near-superpower capable of tempering Bush's right wing agenda and it is one we are supposed to be at the heart of. Europe has economic power and a good moral reputation based on a track record of challenging human rights abuse and promoting solidarity and justice. We have two sets of democratic representatives at the EU – parliament and the council of ministers, but when does our media ever tell us what they are up to?

We have our own elections in a few months, making this the best time to get whatever causes you believe in on the agenda in parliament.You may not like the people who lead us and you may not like the alternatives much (I certainly don't)– but now is the time to put the spangly stars and stripes to the back of our minds and start engaging in our own institutions, however grey and depressing they might seem.

(this article appears this week in The Friend)

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Back! By popular demand...

Solutions for ageing - the youngster's view

A recent study by Young People Now has found that 70 per cent of media reports about Britain's youth are negative. You're more likely to get a friendly handshake in the offices of the Daily Express if you're an asylum seeker than a 15-year-old, it seems. It won't make me popular round here to suggest it, but it is the young, not the old, who are becoming the poverty-stricken victims of British society.

The older generation have been systematically pulling the soft woolly carpet along with them, leaving only bare naily wood beneath. Firstly, the young are forced to go to university now as part of the government's educational production line. Once there, they borrow far less than they would be given on the dole for the chance to become a tax-paying member of society able to keep our ever-growing pensioner population in tea and biscuits. When processed into graduates, we find that it is not even that easy to do our bit: a degree now being as common as a penn'orth of sweets were in t'old days, we count ourselves lucky to get a job answering phones if it keeps the debt collectors from the door.

And what exactly do we earn money for? To pay vast amounts of money to buy-to-let baby boomers who have, with the enormous fantasy proceeds from their homes, decided to go into the business of fleecing youngsters. The average house price is now so far above the average income that it is cheaper to move to Bulgaria and commute by plane than to own a one bedroom hovel in London.

There is a solution. Old people: you've got all the houses. Why not share them with the young? They could pay you a fair amount of money and they could help with the things that young people do best, like weeding and rescuing cats from gutters. Your pension crisis would be alleviated, our housing crisis would be solved. Then house prices would crash and everybody would be happy.

Originally published in The Friend

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Poor neglected blog

...I am sorry. I will shortly be feeding you some of my real-life writing which has, unfortunately, been taking my attentions away from the care and sustanence of White Llama and its hoards(ish) of eager(ish) readers.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Joe Cynic

The characteristic elements of reporting have long been taught to young people who feel the urge to follow when an ambulance goes past and have decided that journalism is the safest way to harness this thrillseeking.

Mainstream reporting for TV or newspapers is a fairly formulaic process. Violence makes the news if it is in a reasonably familiar country populated mainly by white people such as America, Israel or Russia. Viewers have only a 30 second attention span so background information must be kept to a minimum. Quotes to explain the violence should come from the most powerful person you can talk to and, to provide balance, you then go and talk to the most powerful person you can find on the other side. A simple quote from both sides blaming the other side will normally give the balance you need.

If the other side is a terrorist then you don’t need to worry about talking to them, for they are evil and shouldn’t be given a voice. In this case the power on your side will normally refer to the terrorists as ‘these people’ with a disbelieving shake of the head – Blair and Bush both have this slightly stunned expression well honed. Ordinary people caught up in violence are given exposure according to their proximity to what the viewer can relate to his own life. Therefore the hostage from Liverpool ranks above the hostage from Italy.

1000 American deaths should be given more exposure than 10,000 Iraqi civilians, unless it is an election year, when both should be ignored.

Note: I'm finally writing up my new learning on peace journalism for an article. The above will probably be excised from the final piece, so let it live here

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The unspeakable pursuing the inedible

Well - the Daily Mail have confirmed it - we're in a CIVIL WAR. Some of you around the world might think that's a bit silly: you might be living in a conflict zone, you might have fled an oppressive regime or hurricane. You might be facing an election which will probably influence the fate of the entire world. But no, according to those In The Know what is most concerning you right now is the pictures being beamed around the world of the finest and oldest democracy being turned into a mockery.

Yes, it is civil war. And in case you missed those all-important pictures (perhaps your country was showing something, well, important) it's all about hunting. The country is split between those who think pest control must be done on a Sunday morning, wearing red hats and blowing horns and those who would rather leave the creatures alone and watch the sport of MPs being hunted down in their chamber and pointed at in a slightly threatening way. You can see why MPs sympathise with foxes: for them life is one long stretch of paranoia, assuming as they do that people care so much about what they get up to that their lives are in constant, imminent danger. It must be exhausting: you're just trying to make a living, voting through the laws and wars as directed by the Whips and all you've got to protect you is a bunch of men in tights against the marauding mob. Poor sods. It's no wonder that a Labour MP, speaking on the Today programme, declared 'it's one step from protest to terrorism'.

Except that this protest was nothing like terrorism and that was a stupid thing to say. For a start, the idea that the men that stormed the Commons could have been armed or wearing explosives is just silly as anyone who has been through the metal detectors and body searching at the public entrance will testify. You might get flour in there, but not a lot else*. Secondly, they were white and nicely spoken which means that they would have been judged 'not to be a threat' by all the policemen that they would have passed on their way. Woe betide you if you're not white and nicely spoken these days if you're trying to have a protest or even just go to work in Canary Wharf. But that's beside the point.

The incident demonstrated that MPs may be at risk, but they are still ultimately far better protected from the effects of their own war on terror than the rest of us. Their hysteria and money-spending every time an incident like this happens - and indeed the excuse it gives them to remove themselves further away from the public and sneak in a few draconian laws - is just what we've come to expect from a mob who've grown adept at casually dishing out decisions which have dire consequences on the rest of us.

Except for the foxes - huzah!

* Update: OK, so the Sun reporter got a bomb in - there's always one, isn't there.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Could journalists actually do dialogue?

There's an interesting theory about language and knowledge that suggests that if you don't know a word for something, you can't know it exists. It was most recently brought up in the case of a tribe who couldn't count beyond three because they only had the vocabulary for 'one, 'two' and 'many'. I think about this theory reasonably often, especially when I come across a new term that makes me feel pretty darn stupid for not having thought of it myself.

There's me, complaining day after day for what seems like years about the very industry I've been trying to crack. Increasingly disillusioned by the fog of pointlessness reported in our daily papers (see most posts, below). The frequent feeling of rising irritation involved in witnessing London hacks earning much more than I do for their daily outpourings of prejudiced, half-baked 'analysis'.

So finally I didn't bother buying a newspaper last Friday on the journey from hell to the North. I picked up the excellent 'Transcend and Transform: an introduction to conflict work' by Johan Galtung which landed in our office a couple of weeks ago. A very clever and funny book. And suddenly, there pops up something brand new in the middle of a list of ways to sort out Columbia. Page 89: 'Introduce peace journalism into the media, focusing more on root conflicts and possible outcomes and processes, and less on the violent meta-conflicts and who is winning: focusing more on people and less on elites'. Peace journalism, thought Clare, a little stunned. Is that *even* a discipline? (yes, Clare thinks with stars for emphasis).

Well, on further investigation: it is. There are websites and links, which I will helpfully add soon (but see Transcend and Reporting the World on the 'recently visited pages' for a start). There are academic courses in it. For those of us who missed out on the expensive post-grad course in journalism, there are very strict ways to write a news story. Always get the other side, they say. Which is why our news stories so often feed the debating-club style of our politics and our wars: take your stance, present the facts in the way that is simple and easily understood by the simple viewer and throw in 'the other side' at the end. The simple concept 'tell the truth as you see it' is all too often lost in a vicious war of words between sides where prominence tends to be given to those that can provide the best quotes. Is it then surprising that we watch the news with a sense of hopelessness at the ever-spiraling violence across the world?

Peace journalism then, provides another option for reporters. Talk to as many people as possible, give a spectrum of opinion, try to find out from people where they see a conflict going rather than asking them how much they hate the other side which of course is then read by the other side who think the other side is going to kill them etc etc etc. Make reports a contribution to a dialogue, instead of a debate. There's no way it's going to replace the journalism we know and love, but the idea has got me excited about reporting again. Incidentally, one of the first things I picked out in literature was a suggestion not to call it peace journalism - so I won't. Constructive journalism, instead of destructive. Producing reports that facilitate dialogue, prompt creative ideas and solutions, highlight human suffering on both sides instead of dehumanising 'the enemy'. It's not just blind 'balance' but it's giving a voice to all sides which genuinely reflect what people think, instead of only focusing on the extremes. And trying to fit it into a short space.

As John Snow would say: intriguing stuff.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Give me cows

Enough hunting around Gmail Swap for people with imagination and kindness (fun though my couple of swaps have been). I'm not giving my invitations out for software code-cracking or eternal friendship with a teenager in China. And I'm not giving them to soldiers because I don't think 'Someone gave me a gmail account if I promised not to indiscriminately shoot anyone today' would go down well with their commanding officers.

But I have five invitations. My friends that wanted one have one. And while they are still worth something (one gigabyte of space and a rather marvellous layout system, plus of course you'll be a much cooler and valid person) I want my own farm. Send a Cow has a gift catalogue with prices starting at five British pounds for a day's training up to a whole farmyard for £2000. If you go and order online, asking for a gift notification card to be sent to claremariewhite at gmail dot com, I will send you an email as soon as I receive the card. I promise. I'm not just trying to promote Send a Cow specifically - if you can find another similar charity that will independently send me evidence of your donation that will do, but Send a Cow is good as it has goats (£25), bees (£10) and fruit trees (£10), all of which will give African families a chance to improve their own futures. I think the best value gift is £15 for 12 chickens and eight turkeys.

So that's my appeal. Give me bees. Give me apples and pigs. Thank you.

If you're planning to do this then you might want to email me or leave a message here and I'll reserve your invitation. I will of course post any results here, perhaps a picture of our virtual farm, utilising all my artistic skills - which would be entertaining.

Update Kind Claire W (almost me but with an extra I) has generously offered six of her invites towards the farm. She would particularly like a forest of trees (£10 = 30 trees x 6 = 180 trees). So if you're planning to buy trees, email me first and I'll link you up with Claire.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

It's not the pretty people's fault

What a thrill: Mischa Barton, the overly beautiful star of great teen drama The O.C., is British. No, not all ugly dumpling skinheads - there's another one to add to the list headed by Kate Beckinsale and Keira Knightley. Having just wasted a good ten minutes poring over pictures of Mischa, though stil shuddering to learn that she was the creepy scary dead girl in Sixth Sense, I have discovered that she lived in London until the age of four, when she was shipped off to New York to become a movie star. That makes her our's, OK, guys?

But as I flicked through the pages of Metro and peered at the pictures of Nadia in someone else's Sun, I came across that time-honoured and weak argument from rich-green-entrepeneur Roddick that our media and world are so bad because 'most of our media today focuses on celebrity'. This argument, which basically comes down to the idea that we're too busy reading about celebrities to think about the real world, is nonsense. Because, put simply, we *can* think about more than one thing at once. Yes, we can, honestly. But those people who criticise the media because of celebrity obsession are distracting themselves and failing to acknowledge the real scope of the problem. There is plenty of serious stuff in our papers, but it's nonsense.

To illustrate let me take you through my definitive page-by-page analysis of your average British middle market newspaper:

Page one: We're all going to die/the floods are coming!
Souped-up scare story made up around the watercooler terrifying us all about the latest healthscare / what a lot of rain there's been / immigrants

Page two: Snore snore
Dutifully reported events or announcements by the government / trade unions / thinktanks presented in 'serious' short stories, but rest assured no-ones reading that because they're looking at

Page three: Phwar!!
Fabulous respectable actress out on the town last night but golly, is that a nipple showing?

Page four, five, six: Sex between adults - why you MUST know
Latest sex scandal involving well-known figure of 'authority' which normally reaches such gigantic proportions purely because of some spat between an editor and some PR machine which immediately sends every editor on Fleet Street to their chequebooks in the name of press freedom, Your Right To Know and The Public Interest - all of which doesn't apply when it comes to actually reporting what's going on in the world.

Page seven: What Murdoch's government are lying about now
Leaks, spin, made-up numbers and easy-to-follow 'fact' boxes that will really confuse you

Page eight: Murders, rapes and robberies
All the really essential, difficult to get stuff phoned in by your drunk correspondents from outside Britain's courtrooms

Page nine to 14: We must have done enough news by NOW
No. Time for the international news, all about the American elections

etc etc etc

So you see, dotted around all the celebrities, the serious stuff isn't telling us anything at all. Is the real distraction stories on celebrities? Who, to the best of my knowledge, rarely murder, incite others to violence or send in the national troops to kill and be killed in the name of their country? The horror of seeing Britney in Farenheit 9/11 vacuously putting her trust in her president (and finally showing us that she and Justin are not, after all, meant to be together) was the final assurance that celebrities and hard news should be kept firmly in their separate spheres. Reading and gossiping about celebrities is harmless - celebrities provide national entertainment which can be gleefully shared by friends or strangers on a train. It's necessary for a country which no longer has the same sense of community as it once did.

No, the problem is in newspapers which think they have the right to mislead their readers by printing rubbish, that they have the right to invade anyone's privacy and misuse the public interest argument that should be confined to, er, the public interest (ie politicians stealing money, not having affairs unless it happens to be with a spy) and that we actually care in the slightest about the thinly veiled spin that passes for political news now because an actual announcement or actual events isn't exclusive enough and involves a bit more effort that printing the latest anxious speculation in the corridors of Canary Wharf.

If the good papers realised that there's no shame in a bit of celebrity indulgence (which, to be fair, the Telegraph has to an extent though it has come in for much criticism over it) then we would finally have a good mix in a newspaper. Put the latest developments on Michelle and Stuart's 'romance' in (quick, before we lose interest - oh, there it goes) next to news on Sudan, it might just get more people reading proper news. And that, surely, is what newspapers are there for, isn't it?

Postscript: I don't want to blow my own trumpet (the classic blogger lie) but I've been doing mental ticking of boxes in recent days and the above content analysis is Right. Especially in the Standard.

Well, it made me laugh

The following is from The Friend in 1978 and has been included in an email bulletin I write for web-subscribers. I thought it would be appreciated by at least a couple of this site's regular readers...

Review: The Man who gave his company away by Susanna Hoe
(Biography of Ernest Bader, 'the émigré Swiss Quaker who has dedicated his life to building a two-way bridge between industry and Christianity')

Most people know that Ernest Bader built up a successful industrial firm, then transferred both control and income to his work force. This book goes into detail about these arrangments and the problems successfully encountered, and could serve as a ground-map ('here be dragons') for anyone studying ways to alleviate capitalism's unpleasant side-effects.
E.F. Schumacher, a trustee of the Scott Bader Commonwealth, said: 'A strong and very upright searching Quaker. But he is a very difficult chap… he is a military pacifist, a very dictatorial democrat, a very intelligent ass, an asinine genius'.
Explaining to an enthralled overseas visitor how he had created the Scott Bader Commonwealth out of love for his worker, to show the way to a new and loving order of society and hoping, through love, to put an end to war, he added: 'the trouble is, there isn't sufficient love in the world.'
'Everyone doesn't necessarily see it your way', said his son.
Ernest banged on the table. 'Then drown them. DROWN THEM.'

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Failing again

On March 27th delegates gathered in London to remember the genocide in Rwanda and ask how it could be preventing from happening again. Last Friday, July 16, SURF marked the 100th day of the genocide with readings from survivors of the genocide, drawing attention to the plight of so many women who were left not dead but dying from AIDS and who cannot afford the drugs that could help them.

At the forum the name Darfur was raised several times. People argued over whether a genocide was happening, but all those who knew the area agreed that state-supported bombing was taking place and that something terrible was going on. Now, well over 100 days later, we are seeing images from the refugee camps in Chad. In a report that showed that ITV believed its viewers did not know about the problem, might not care unless they saw brave little children smiling and that their claims that all the men in their communities had been killed should be regarded with suspicion - were they fighing for their army perhaps? asked the reporter before asking all the children whether they had 'lost' male members of their family and what had happened to them. It was their lead into showing pictures by the children of the airstrikes, the killings that they had witnessed. It was a good report, but done in typical ITV-news tabloid 'exclusive' style that belied the fact that this has been going on for ages.

Victims testified to Amnesty in June that the airstrikes, killings and rapes have been happening since at least last June. Until the beginning of this year it was seen as part of the civil war, following a peace agreement people started to wonder why the violence didn't seem to be stopping in Darfur. For the last few months we have seen arguments over words, over the truth: the international community is again delaying action until the last possible moment - the point when a massive epidemic in Chad's refugee camps takes the situation out of a complex war into another famine, easy to portray to the world as starving children and let's hope the world doesn't mind bailing Africa out yet again.

The Security Council will again come under fire for failing to act, the British and American governments have both spoken strong words but will be reluctant to send in troops following Iraq. The continuing failure to establish a proper response unit to crimes against humanity, a peacekeeping force that can be sent into action upon the production of basic evidence of civilian suffering, has paralysed the international community again. Like Rwanda 1994, NGOs were in Sudan crying for help on behalf of the people of Darfur: once again nobody listened.

This isn't a very coherent post. There's a lot more information and appeals elsewhere, including:

What you can do about Darfur
Disasters Emergency Committee appeal(UK)
Amnesty: Sudan crisis
UN news
Reuters Alertnet

Sunday, July 18, 2004

The endless bloody queue

Should anyone near you come out with that tired whinge about the trains being awful, bundle them into a car and force them to try rush hour in any one of Britain's urban sprawls. Best of all, make them try the Midlands where the roads are like worms fighting in a ditch. It is unbelievable that there are people who take one train a year and then complain when it arrives ten minutes late (as it always does for these whiners), yet every day they start out hours early to plunge themselves into a nightmare of queues, roadworks, stupid one-way systems: all of them spread so thinly apart that it takes them hours of their precious lives to get where a train could take all of them in fifteen minutes.

Each hour the traffic report comes on again: every major road in Britain clogged, forget getting home. Feverish efforts to redraw pigeon-like navigation plans: quick, get off this road and find the fastest way round the problem, but it will never work: killing yourself is the only way out. And yet instead of remembering the misery and hell of commuting by car, the times they were nearly reduced to tears by another ridiculous lane system, car-lovers talk about enjoying their own space and privacy that they couldn't possibly get sharing their journey with the ugly public transport users.
The horrific nature of traffic jams is what gives Britons an entirely different view of travel times to Americans, as Bill Bryson has pointed out in one of his books. If, US readers, you're bored of asking your local Englishman to say 'sugar', point to a map of their country and ask them how long it would take them to get from one side to t'other, which in your eyes would be about the same distance as a trip to the nearest candy store. Laugh as they suck their teeth and say 'ooh, about a day if you avoid that nasty three-year road improvement scheme near Birmingham'. But don't laugh too hard, pity them, for they are probably right.

But you can't blame car-users outside London for this mess, as some 'thinkers' are inclined to do from their Islington roost. Blame whoever decided to shut down all the train stations in most of the villages in Britain for  starters. Then blame the planners who made it impossible to cross urban areas by foot or bike with vast roundabouts. But having blamed and forgiven them, the government should start pouring money into public transport with all the missionary zeal that got Ken Livingston re-elected, to the surprise of all newspaper editors who have never tried the world's finest public transport system.
Every village should link to a town by rail, at least one train an hour but more if the demand is there. Run it like the tube - have some ambition! Everyone who can't walk to a train station should be able to get a bus and the buses will all zip along in their own lanes. All the basic tickets for these services should cost as much as the petrol would, with more expensive tickets available for those people who like to sit in first class and who's money should be taken whenever possible. Give them a croissant and smile at them a little brighter, for they will subsidise us all.
When, and only when, all these measures are in place it will be time to slam the car user. What the hell are you doing? Ask them as they continue to creep about in rush hour. There's perfectly nice trains you can get, say to them, handing them a newspaper and a set of headphones. Look, you can even listen to music on the new trains - take your laptop, do something productive, you will holler. Oh, personal space is it? You want to sit in your immensely powerful car crawling along at speeds the manufacturers never thought possible in such a finely engineered machine? Want to massage your toes on the pedals, do your make-up in the mirror and enjoy your Me time? Think that your children would be better protected in the vast enclosure of a people carrier than on a bus, talking to other children and catching their lice? Well, get over it or pay up. Everyone should be allowed a small allowance of free journeys into the rush-hour abyss for those times when you really need to carry stuff. All the rest of the time, you pay to queue. Car ownership would become cheaper for everyone, as there will fewer cars and no longer improvements to fund from crumbling roads, there will be less pollution to counter from crawling cars and everyone will be moving faster and more efficiently. The super-rich can pay for clear roads, but most of us will be on trains, reading: what a well-educated country we could become.

And I will never have to suffer driving through a rush hour again.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Dublin reviewed

Dublin is the centrepiece of one of Europe's great success stories: attracting vast amounts of tourists, of whom we were two. We stayed at the Isaacs Hostel which was conveniently very close to the bus link to the airport. There are probably more pleasant places for toilets - if you end up on the floor with no locks on the showers, go hunting for the lockable ones - but the rooms were nice. Dublin is small and easy to get to know quickly, we frequently gravitated to Westmorland Street and enjoyed chinese, fish & chips (Beshoff's, apparently started by a survivor of the Potemkin mutiny) and music with Guinness at O'Sullivans. The chips are more expensive than even London, this is probably a consequence of euro-rounding-up. You can get delicious crepes at the Lemon Jelly cafe in Temple Bar and the Winding Stairway Cafe on the Liffey.

The small Rough Guide was a great way to get around the city, especially as a guide to restaurants and cafes which can get quite expensive. It also has very good profiles of the Irish heroes constantly referred to in statues and streetnames; reminders of British badness are everywhere, although it is by no means an unfriendly place to us ex-rulers. Its descriptions of bars or restaurants as 'packed' were generally wrong.

The Joyce industry is in full swing at the moment with the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday and there is a very good exhibition at the National Library which we came across only upon discovering that the museum is closed on Mondays. It has all the Ulysses goodies you could hope to see but could never afford to touch - you are sternly warned at the door that no photography or recording will be tolerated. It has a great reconstruction of Joyce's room and the most remarkable draft notebooks, covered in crayon and random scrawls.

Dublin seems to be a city obsessed with history, and it certainly has a fascinating heritage. However, it is a heritage formed relatively recently: consider the contradictions in three of its focal points, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and the Easter Rising of 1916. Joyce's Ulysses was banned for years and he considered himself an exile from Dublin although he continued to write about it, Wilde's father did far more for the city than Oscar, who would have been even more unwelcome in Dublin than he was in London by the end of his life. 1916 was considered an outrage by most Dubliners, twice as many citizens than fighters died in the Easter Rising and the protagonists were jeered as they were taken away from the post office, only being brought back into the public heart after their execution by the British, as ever keen to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (as someone else once said).

But while the cultural domination of nationalist history may seem exclusive to some of the people now trying to assimilate into the growing city (I hope it doesn't, it is a very welcoming place), it is still an outlooking city: EU flags are everywhere. The Irish have managed to intergrate their own distinct identity with involvement in Europe in a way that the British, still insecure and embarrassed by our identity, are failing to do.

How are they getting on with the smoking ban, the curious have asked. Well, for a city even more into its pubs than Britain, very well. The pubs definitely had a more pleasant atmosphere although enclosed beer gardens are a bit, well, smoky and so are the doorways. But I heard very little griping about it, even when it rained, and the example should be enough to convert Britain to the experiment. Sorry Lila.

Finally, a recommendation for the Guinness Storehouse: it's great. You get a free Guinness in the entry price and four floors of unashamed, entertaining propaganda for the black stuff. The site smells of malt too, which is rather lovely.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004


I missed the curfew. All people to be home by 6.30, they said. Here's me, still in Central London. Tube strikes bring about a new form of resilience in Londoners, triggering memories of the Blitz. You readers outside London just don't know what a crisis is till you've witnessed the chaos caused by millions of commuters attempting to cycle in for the first time or who, even worse, have chosen to drive, their selfishness rewarded by massive traffic jams. The sensible people walk: don the backpacks, put the shoulders back and start the purposeful walk to or from London's edges. It's nice to see their faces lit by the sun, slightly flushed from speed-walking and their first prolonged period of summer exposure outside the tube or the office.

The Isle of Dogs doesn't get affected by the strike - the DLR doesn't have drivers: yet another reason to live on London's emerald isle. Who would want to live in North London now? Nobody - tomorrow morning they'll be fighting their way onto the buses while I shall be shuttling in on the free riverboat service to the Savoy. Heh.

[Update 30/6/04 1649GMT: The boat was lovely darlings, thank you for asking. Now preparing for the long march home: the boat might be wetter this time. I'm only slipping into first person diary mode, by the way, because I know how fascinated you people outside London are by the apocolyptic nightmare which is tube strike day. Last night, just before being sent to walk from Bank to Monument station, and then back again underground (Why? WHY??) I was told horrible stories about East Enders trying to get onto buses the last time this happened: blood was spilt, haggard looking zombies in suits were banging on the side of the bus, desperate to squeeze on. This is what it reduces us to, folks. The horror...

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

What is news?

If you do media studies, you learn a set of news values that come very close to what we read and see. These don't even refer to the extra set of 'values' that pass for news presentation in the majority of British newspapers.

Here is a proposal for some new values:

Scale: if something bad happens, it's bad wherever it is. Assume that some of your readers have been to all of the places you mention. Prioritise according to numbers of deaths

Humanity: If people are being killed by other people, that's badder still. So is any death that could have been prevented such as starvation and epidemic - whose fault was it? Is that acceptable to us?

Background: Answer the basic question 'Why?' If that involves giving some history, try and do it in a paragraph. All media can now link to a website that could have background material up

Complexity: The world is complicated, it's OK, we know that. You only need to report on what happened today. Keep it simple but don't leave it out because you think we're stupid.

Personal interest: It doesn't need to be a celebrity to grab our attention - look at how quickly we become interested in the Big Brother halfwits. We form new relationships online with all sorts of people. If someone has a story to tell, let's hear it. They don't have to be English, they don't even have to be white. We might just care.

Accountability: The media should be checking that things are working well - so do court reports, but don't just focus on the lurid ones.
Give us decent investigations of political figures, and ask them the questions we actually want to know based on real facts. Don't play their tedious games: loudly tell them to shut up if they use the word 'choice' in that meaningless way

Inform: If crime figures go down, then say so; if there is a spate of crime in a particular area then we might like to know that too, but don't come up with scare-stories just because it's a slow news day. Don't put the interweb on the front page just because you've received one of those forwards from your friend warning you about the teddy bear.

Truth: Reporters should be able to go to the point of a story and from there tell the truth as they have found it. And if they're in a foreign country they should always, always, talk to some ordinary people affected by the story. Really: just say what you see

There's nothing wrong with balancing all this with celebrity gossip, entertainment stories, but perhaps it's time we stopped treating all news as fun.

Could we really cope with this barrage of 'real' news? Do we really want to know all the depressing things that have happened around the world in five minute soundbites or 100 word articles? Perhaps we do really want to know what's going on in the world - perhaps we really want to make up our own minds about things.


Friday, June 18, 2004

InDesign - the love story

So I got my hands on InDesign last week - for anyone that don't know this is Adobe's version of Quark, the industry standard programme for designers and journalists. There's a big debate going on about whether InDesign will take over Quark in the end, fierce fights between those who love Quark's simplicity and those for whom Quark has thwarted their style ambitions just once too often.

I thought I'd share my impressions sometime, and this seems like the right time. Because at this moment, we've fallen out. InDesign is a tease.

It wasn't easy from the start - insisting that I delete most of my hard drive to run the trial version, but eventually we got to the impressive installation presentation: everything that InDesign can do. I nearly cried as it told of importing tables, thinking back to long nights spent tortuously putting sports tables onto Quark pages which could have been spent asleep. The butterfly logo suggested fabulous colours and flirtations with whole new worlds. The first thing I tried to do was open a Quark page - it worked! - and it looked fabulous. Fonts are rendered (if, indeed, I mean rendered) as they will look on the printout so it really does look like you're crafting your printed product on screen. I did some cool things, spinning text boxes and playing with wierd colour effects.

But then I tried to do some work. Real work. And it didn't like it. Much as it looks like Photoshop, not all the commands are the same so little things like changing colours were excruciating. Like a stilted conversation after a good first date, I felt deflated. But it got better. We worked together finding solutions to some of the things I actually needed to do, and discovered some good things about InDesign:

- you can use the paintdropper tool to choose the sort of text you want to use if it appears elsewhere on the page. Clever.
- you can turn your work into a webpage very easily and it looks lovely.
- transparent photos!
- importing tables is easy and works very well. You can also import all sorts of other things such as word documents, which will come out looking like they did in word rather than defaulting to some other text
- you can zoom in really really far. This has no real advantage in itself but Times New Roman really looks good close up.

That's about as much as I've discovered so far, mainly because it takes hours to load up, crashes my mac often and throws little fits every now and again, paralysing us both. It wants all your attention, just turning away for a moment to check your email is enough to send it into frenzied rage. InDesign wants more power that I can offer it hence the awkward little glitches that stop you from doing basic things one minute when it's quite happy to do it the next. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.

We could do great things together, me and InDesign. We may not be speaking at the moment, but I don't think I'll be able to resist it for long.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004


Ukip's success fulfils a media prophecy that fails the people of Britain

Last week Britain voted Ukip in as its third favourite party to represent them in the European parliament. In doing so they have given the Eurosceptics much to gloat about and created a very real risk that British governments could start to become even more awkward and obstructive in Europe.

Why are we in Europe? Primarily to keep the peace. The main thing our generation has forgotten is that before the creation of the European Union not a single half century passed without some spat between European states leading to hundreds of peasant deaths. The first half of the twentieth century saw generations ripped apart by these superpowers playing with their big new toys. War became simply too dangerous for Europe. The economic partnership of the EU has proved the most stable way to forge peace. But Europe gives us plenty of advantages above free trade: where the British government is reducing the powers of the Lords, Europe provides a stabling check on governmental power: all its actions are basically to fulfil the peace and development aims and uphold human rights - something that was never part of the British landscape until Europe made it explicit. Those that bleat about British sovereignty and self-determination forget that it is our country that took us into a war the majority didn't want and is paying the consequential costs. Our economic problems are nothing to do with Europe, they are our problems. Before you get all terrified about the constitution, just try reading it, rather than killing off all that we Brits hold dear it reinforces many of the greatest principles that Britons built in the world: peace, security, equality and prosperity. Most of its contents are very vague, it contains few things that we haven't already signed up to and the way it is implemented is, well, up to us.

Governments must take some of the blame for the break-down in communications between Europe and its British citizens. While they have been involved in every decision taken in the last 25 years, and often very influentially involved, they do not admit to the full extent of European involvement in our affairs. They blame problems on Europe, but take credit for the advances in employment law, consumer protection and economic regeneration that they helped to create from Brussels.

But it is the media which has been the real architect of the dismal level of debate which led to people using their European vote to protest against the British government or vote for Robert Kilroy Silk because they'd seen him on t'telly. Who writes about Europe intelligently? Not the Europesceptic papers, obviously, but not even the likes of the Independent and the Guardian to any real level. The argument against it seems to be that the readership 'wouldn't understand and aren't interested'. Well, make them interested, that's your job. Imagine if the media spent ten years without reporting at all on the British parliament and then turned round and said 'people are voting against Parliament because it's an undemocratic and unnacountable monster. Let's abolish it'. It would be exactly the same, and then who would run us: Murdoch? Richard Desmond? The media has many purposes, not just to tittilate and scare us, but its most respectable purpose in a democratic society is to hold our institutions to account. We should be able to rely on journalists to tell the truth about what they see around them, and there's no reasons why we should expect that from a bunch like Ukip, or any other political party for that matter. But the media has failed to hold the EU to account to such a spectacular extent that people like Ukip can come up with whatever scare stories they want and nobody on the doorstep knows any better.

If Ukip use their new powers to honestly expose the problems in the EU, the waste and the over-bureacracy then all for the good, but they will be addressing nothing that the EU isn't already working on. But if they use all that MEP money to try and destroy the EU from their lair in Birmingham (a city that has done very well out of Europe), then they will be guilty of the worst corruption themselves: by failing to involve themselves in the intitutions of Europe they will be failing their constituents.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Ode to a post, lost in my head

I had a great post mapped out in my mind over the weekend
It was witty and pithy and cutting
Even cunning.
But now I have forgotten every word
How sad it is to forget a good rant
Does this ever happen to Jeremy Clarkson?
I don't think so.


Monday, May 17, 2004

A wire junkie speaks out

The secret news channels we never get to see

Sometimes I get to go to a newsroom. And the first thing they show you in a newsroom is The Wires. Let me tell you about the wires...

To really get a sense of where they came from, you have to think way back to the old days and a little machine clickety-clicking away in the corner, constantly churning out narrow strips of paper heralding a great story in Washington or a riot in furthest Russia. Even further back you would have Mr Reuter's fastest pigeon landing on the windowsill of a grimy Fleet Street office window, the hottest gold-swapping news from Berlin strapped firmly to its leg.

In the modern day they aren't so glamorous, sitting on your screen along with the email, but they still represent something special and pure about news. Every few minutes something new flashes up from these correspondents all over the world: something's happened. It's fabulous. Some of it may not interest you, but you don't have to read beyond the headline and it's there: from the two dead in a Kent carcrash to escalating violence in a country most news bulletins don't even bother to mention.

And what do we see of the wires, these constantly updating headlines? Well, not much. Journalist 'ethics' being what they are, you can make up a story if you like, but you can't just take someone else's story without making a few phone calls. Even your made up stories have to be based on a few phone calls even if they're to your friends who you can later quote as 'concerned insider'. This is The Rule. It takes time. Therefore, even on websites as comprehensive as BBC News and The Guardian, stuff just doesn't move quite as fast. Things get missed out, headlines are reprioritised on the basis of what we will understand or care about. TV and radio news are roughly the same: think about how many stories there are in a day and yet you only ever here about eight of them repeated on news bulletins throughout the day. If we're going to war that day or it's New Years Day forget about hearing any variations whatsoever. That's the news agenda, and while the web may have given us more ability to pick our own agenda and get big breaking staries fast, it doesn't quite match up to all those people, all over the world, filing little snippets of happenings to the wires.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

A version of this appeared in the Staffordshire Sentinel this week as a letter. The spur was lots of articles moaning about the undemocratic and pointless EU, this in a place which is dying a slow and painful death while other Northern cities sort themselves out. I'm posting it mainly for the benefit of Jess, who I know is interested in these things but has decamped to the land of fried chicken

The Potteries have much to benefit from better interaction with Europe. There is an EU directive which says companies must consult with their workers before any major change. It would have made Royal Doulton's recent actions illegal, but our Government was too slow: it will not be adopted into UK law until March 2005. Another part of Stoke's heritage gone.

Other Northern cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool have been transformed, partly by EU funding and partly by the cooperation of different sections of the community who have had the ambition to take control, attract new businesses and turn their fortunes around.

Meanwhile, Stoke-on-Trent is a priority area for funding but its leaders continue to let its industrial heritage crumble. Millions of pounds are available - for getting on with regeneration instead of arguing about it. Remember the founders of the Potteries who built a world-famous industry and a superb infrastructure of canals and railways? No endless pointless roadwork schemes for them.

Today's leaders should find out exactly what the people want - more likely to be better shopping facilities than the well-meant but ill thought-out Cultural Quarter. As the mass-production potteries go to cheaper places they should support small studios, for there is still an affluent market keen to pay for genuine Potteries products; the remaining areas with kilns would make tourist attractions if cleaned up. Stoke is full of evocative reminders of its past and most of them are falling down.

Far from being undemocratic, every EU decision goes through our own government ministers and MEPs: if they do not act in our interests it is because we are not watching them closely enough. How can we when the media barely covers European politics? The elections on June 10th give us the chance to learn what the EU can offer, so use your vote and demand more action from MEPs.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Bring on the referendum!

So, people of Britain, you’re going to vote No in the constitution referendum because you’re a bunch of xenophobes are you? Because you’re a mass of ignorant bigots who still remember the bosch marching over the Channel to make you all drive VWs. Forget Europe, you’re all Americans now!

Actually, there are plenty of reasons why, with a decent bit of publicity, people might vote Yes especially if this vote comes down to whether we should stay in Europe altogether. Nobody will vote No if their nice farmhouse in France will get snatched back as a consequence. They won’t vote No if a quick weekend break in Venice might involve visas. They will vote Yes if they realise that most of the advances in employment and consumer protection have come from Europe and not our own government. They will vote Yes if they go along to Birminham’s city centre and see the remarkable transformation that has been achieved largely with European money.

The good thing about the referendum is that it forces the government to start promoting Europe’s achievements and power instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. They need to avoid the pathetic arguments and marginalise the thinking that says all Europe does is dictate the shape of our bananas. Where Europe has faults, which it does, they should work to address them. They should force MEPs to talk to their constituents from time to time. This is a real opportunity to get the British people to understand how regional, national and European government interlink and who deals with what, empowering them to start using these institutions to their advantage.

Most of what is being said about the constitution is too vague for anyone to make any sense of. It may not be the perfect constitution but if anyone really wanted us to be involved in making it better they would have kicked up a fuss two years ago during the consultation period, not when the thing is virtually finished. For good or bad, it will set out what we can expect from Europe in one document which we can refer to when required. This isn’t a concept we’re used to in Britain, but it might not harm us. The introduction to the constitution is actually quite an inspiring collection of values which few would disagree with and the rest is mainly aims and aspirations rather than specifics.

Many people in Britain actually have a very wide world view – that’s the nice consequence of the British Empire and what makes us feel so superior to the Americans (amongst many, many other things - smugness being one of our less attractive traits). The EU is already involved in common foreign policy where it’s efficient and where help from an individual state such as Britain might not be welcome. That’s a Good Thing. But if the UK wants to go to war against the wishes of France and most of its own population, this constitution isn’t going to stop it. We need to stop thinking of the EU as a sneaky Germanic superstate and compare it to America. Texas and California have entirely different tastes when it comes to the death penalty but they all manage to work together where it suits them. The EU is no different and all this talk of protecting ourselves against the threat of federalism is simply making us look stupid.

The British people should be trusted to have a bit of sense and vote Yes. It might help if Blair wasn’t in charge of the campaign though.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Israel and Palestine: an idea for peaceful separation

This is an idea that came to me while passing some of Europe's great rivers on a long and boring coach journey. I have lived overlooking one of London's docks for nearly two years and the water, filled with fish and birds, has been a calming influence for me in that time. It's a pretty twee idea, but imagining peace solutions is somewhat more cheering than trying to deal with the reality. And probably just as effective really.

The borders that have been effectively agreed since 1967 should be firmly established by the international community, with as much cooperation as is possible from Israel and Palestine. Israel has to be reassured that the international community will always support its right to provide a homeland for Jews, but that its current tactics are simply not providing security for its people. Israel has to give up its settlements and Palestian refugees must give up their right to return to what has become Israeli land. Both settlers and refugees should receive help in building a secure and permanent life within their own borders. The practicalities of all this has been sketched out by many other people so there's no need to go into in detail. The point is that both sides must be given viable states an international peacekeepers should take over security in the area as a prerequisite. It may be a semantic starting point to switch from Israel/Palestine to Israel and Palestine in writing about the area.

So, once the borders are decided and security established, the international community would oversee the construction of a canal running from the sea, around the Gaza Strip and the Westbank and the areas' agreed 'corridor'. A canal could be effectively patrolled with speedboats and each side would be free, if they wished, to construct any form of further security on their own side to prevent incursions.

While water would initially be used to separate, it could contribute in a very real way to bringing peace. Technology could be utilised to turn the sea-water into usable water for those living in Israel and Palestine. Water can be calming, it can create an oasis. Projects could be formed to bring young Israelis and Palestinians together in building attractive waterside areas. Eventually, and optimistically, bridges could be built over the canal to link the two communities. Instead of being a symbol of separation, the canal could become a symbol of peace and progress could be visibly marked: from the deconstruction of walls to the building of bridges.

The canals built in Britain in the past were great technological feats: ambitious but also very practical in moving goods and people. The world could contribute to peace and security in Israel and Palestine with a canal: it is certainly their moral duty to take more practical steps to solve this situation, which is not getting any better while a seemingly unending state of conflict exists between them. The Palistinian state cannot be said to truly exist while Palestinians have to justify their movements to Israeli soldiers all the time and lose their farmland to the fence/wall and the Israelis cannot feel comfortable in the state which was supposed to be their sanctuary while they live in fear of being blown up as they eat pizza. An international peace force is the only way to move towards peace.

Afterthought: in the light of this week's news of the peace agreement on Israel and Palestine agreed by Israel, the idea of international intervention seems more remote than ever. Well done Dubya...

Friday, April 02, 2004

Friday questions

This isn't your traditional Friday-bored-in-the-office-so-I'll-fill-in-a-questionnaire questions, but some of the questions that I have mulled over in what has been a busy week. Now that I can write shorthand at 60wpm (so far!) I can capture these questions. If you, the public, have the answers to any, or all, of them, please post them below

1. [actually, I deleted this question, but I can't be bothered to re-order the numbers. If I think of another question before I leave this computer, I'll put it in this slot]
2. If the (British) media really made an effort to report on some of the terrible things going on in the world, would anyone actually care?
3. How can the EU be made to work better?
4. Who should I vote for in the London Mayor and EU elections?
5. What is good luck?
6. Is there life on other planets?
7. [I deleted this one too. You don't need to worry yourself over that]
8. Why is Beverley Hughes saying she did everything right when she just admitted to misleading everyone?
9. Do I *really* look like the actress out of that film Secretary?
10. Are there lions in Rwanda?
[note: I met some very nice Rwandans this week, but it seemed too stupid to ask]
11. Would you buy one of these peace baskets?
[note: you already can in America and Rwanda]
12. Will they ever turn the lovely old buildings in Stoke-on-Trent into cool apartments?
13. What the hell is going on in Darfur?
[note: Human Rights Watch have released a report on this here. It's helpful]
14. Why are people racist?
[note: that question isn't meant to sound whiny and preachy, I really don't get it. I understand why people split up into different groups and might not like each other as part of those group, but I really don't get why you just wouldn't like a person who's sitting right opposite and is a person, only he looks different to you. Well?]

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Reflections on crimes against humanity

Saturday’s forum at the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide saw delegates divide over a central question: when should the international community intervene to stop deaths?

There seem to be two ways of preventing genocide. The first is through intelligence. A genocide – the systematic wiping out of a particular group – must be planned. Both the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide required planning of practicalities and a build-up of hatred against the target group to incite participation. It needs large numbers of collaborators. Given these aspects, genocide must be detectable.

The second way to prevent genocide is much more complex: intervention before killings on a ‘small’ scale become genocide. Weeks were spent debating whether the massacres in Rwanda should actually be called ‘genocide’ before any action was taken. Partly because of the obligation to act, states were reluctant to define the events as genocide. Politics trumped humanity. Many on Saturday called for action in Darfur, Sudan to prevent genocide, but this comparison was described as an ‘absurdity’. ‘Civilians are being bombed by the state’ we were told by a speaker in the audience, but this was not genocide in his opinion. Presumably people were saying exactly the same thing in May 1994 – it shows how unclear a situation can look from outside.

The distinctions between conflict and genocide were made clear at the conference: whereas conflict, simplistically, involves two sides fighting, genocide is a one-sided attempt to ‘rewrite’ humanity, to reduce diversity in the human race. Conflict resolution and genocide prevention must therefore be treated distinctly too. Before or during the event, evidence that this is what has been planned and carried out must be present and must be distinguished from the fog of disinformation that will be thrown out by the perpetrators. This requires specialised investigators. The international community must keep its eyes open: to remember past atrocities and see that it is not so unbelievable for one people to turn against another. Other countries that receive information of plans of genocide from informants must be obliged to take it seriously and act to protect the victim group. The need to keep racism out of education becomes more vital if it is viewed as a precursor to genocide.

Conflict resolution is different and it is up to the world to decide how seriously it should take this. There is no point in calling something a genocide just because thousands of civilians have been killed in conflict because while wars are acceptable to all countries the same bickering over terms and sovereignty that was present in Rwanda will be seen each time. Would countries condemn the killing of innocents in war and, as a consequence, stop bombing or fighting in civilian areas? While greater use of intelligence could contribute to preventing genocide, a fundamental change of world attitude is needed before rapid response to conflict can be achieved. While we can hope to become more sophisticated in insuring that Rwanda or the Holocaust doesn’t happen again, we still continue to live in a world where the deaths of 10,000 in Iraq can be seen as collateral damage and nobody will step in to stop Israelis and Palestinians from tearing each other apart. Is it so ridiculous to suggest that all innocent deaths should be a crime against humanity?

Friday, March 26, 2004

Tall is beautiful

Tower Hamlets council has just approved a rather attractive new tower for the Isle of Dogs.

Inevitably the objections came rolling in, as they always do, from residents and the Canary Wharf group and City Airport (this may have been fair enough: towers in flightpaths tend to cause problems). The undertone to the objections is always basically anti-tower and this is sad.

It took London a ridiculously long time to realise what New York has known for a century: that big cities need big buildings. Hence we have a vast sprawling city where someone in Kensington thinks it would be more practical to get to the moon than Greenwich, and they would be right. The development on the Isle of Dogs in the past four years has been remarkable: the island will soon have everything anyone could possible want within a very small space, it combines futuristic offices, shops and bars with wide open spaces and an abundance of wildlife . So why is there always someone complaining about further development?

Since 9/11 we have come to think of terrorism whenever we look at a tower and this is exacerbated in Canary Wharf where planes flying to and from City Airport make some hairy turns as they use the development to get their bearings. But despite that tragic attack, a tower actually isn't a shining beacon, beckoning to the crazies to steer its way. Your hijacked plane would find it just as simple to crash into the Houses of Parliament if it felt so inclined. Tubes could be targets, so could Leicester Square. You don't beat terrorism by avoiding fearfully high buildings.

The petty objections to towers in London mask a real prejudice: we in Britain feel that towers represent arrogance. For those that thought 9/11 was something America had been asking for and forget the fact that people actually died that day, the twin towers were a symbol of overblown capitalism, ridiculous architectural showing off that was bound to end in tears. The stalinist Senate House in Bloomsbury was London's highest building until the 1980s, which is pathetic when you look at New York's Flatiron and Chrysler buildings. Skyscrapers can be awe-inspiring. In the Isle of Dogs, where the glass reflects the water of the docks around them, they can be beautiful. The first tower of the Canary Wharf estate is infinitely more interesting now it has been joined by tall buddies, making up a proper skyline from vantage points like Greenwich Park and not just looking like a random tooth sticking up out of the wasteland of an old tramp's mouth (good simile? discuss).

High-rise development on the Isle of Dogs will create an inspiring and compact centre for London and in ten years time the place could be amazing. But the council must ensure that the high profits made in the area improve conditions for the island's low-paid residents: the builders, cleaners, security staff (and journalists) that keep the place ticking along. Large swathes of affordable and social housing amongst new swanky developments will eliminate the rich-poor divide that presently carves up the south side of the island. The council and Ken have been good at addressing this, and must not be scared to squeeze as much as possible from the wealthy companies that are coming London's way: it will benefit them too.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Bring on the crash!

The government is going to lend teachers up to 100,000 to buy houses. Well, thanks very much Labour.

Some questions:
- by doing this you, the government, are giving people with houses £100,000 and putting teachers £100,000 in debt. How does that equalise our society?
- What does this do to slow down the overpriced housing market, which has frozen young first time buyers out of the market? Except, now, teachers and presumably the other key workers that you choose to give big debts to.
- *If* the housing market crashes, because of the lack of first-time-non-key-worker-buyers, leaving these teachers with large debts in negative equity, will you bail them out?
- How many actual houses could you build with 100,000, which you could then ‘lend’ to teachers? More than one house?

Modern philosophy

A conversation over coffee
I don’t understand why Jack Straw’s having a go at Israel for killing the leader of Hamas
Ah.. because it was illegal. And stupid.
But why was it illegal? He’s a military target. He’s the leader of Hamas.
No he’s not. It’s not a war.
And he was in a wheelchair.
It’s not a war? What? It sure has looked like one for thirty years!
No.. it’s not a war. It’s a conflict within a nation.
But.. but.. isn’t it better to kill the leader of Hamas, who have been blowing themselves up in Israeli cafes, than the little children? And the Tom Hurndalls? They always say they’re going after Hamas when they bulldoze houses, so why does everyone go mad when they actually get someone from Hamas?
They should have arrested him.
They couldn’t have arrested him, he was surrounded by guards; everyone would have ended up getting shot anyway, so why not go at him with a rocket launcher? It’s what he wanted.
Ah, yes that’s the point though, isn’t it? Now he’s a martyr.
And lots more Hamas leaders will come along.
So what if they go after all the Hamas leaders – what if they destroy Hamas?
They won’t destroy Hamas. Because they’ll always recruit more people. And now there’s going to be all the revenge attacks in Israel. So you see it was stupid to kill him. And America have been crap.
So there’ll be loads more attacks and so Israel will have more justification to go in and do what they do.
And then they’ll be more suicide bombings.
That’s right.
And it’s not a war.

Later, with someone else.
It’s simple isn’t it. They just build the fence in the right place and bring in international forces to keep them apart.
Oh.. but I hate the idea of separating people. I’m ideologically against it.
But. they. can’t. live. together.
No. There is that.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

An autobiographical note

Who the hell writes this thing?

My name is Clare. I live in London, on the Isle of Dogs, which is where the taxi drivers live.
My writing name is Clare-Marie White. I have wanted to be a journalist ever since I wanted to be a vet (I was too scared of the needles. And no good at science.) Despite this, I have made a recent decision not to sacrifice my life to journalism, not to do anything I feel really uncomfortable with (like knocking on the doors on murder victim's families or inventing stories about the asylums seeker who ate all the swans) and not to get paid nothing unless it's for a good reason.
These are deeply unfashionable views amongst those who run the media but then the media ain't the fabulous, smoky, seething den of intrigue that I expected anyway. So sod 'em. But I like writing and I would like to be rich. If the two combine one day all will be well. And if people manage to spell my name right that will be even better.
I work for the Quakers, who are great. That doesn't make me religious, but I do think about religion now. I think about many other things since starting this job: I grapple with pacifism, though haven't quite got my head round it yet; I'm learning about Africa and other places that I didn't think much about before. In the sense of being political if you get passionate and angry about things and want to change them, I am political. Pretty much left wing (but don't try selling Socialist Worker to me, I don't want it), keen on capitalism done fairly - if that's possible.
I like music a lot: all music; I rarely know who I'm listening to, but I like it.
We'll no doubt talk about all these things in much more detail, readers. So that's all you need to know for now. And how kind it has been for you to listen.
Enough first person, on with the writing!

White Llama is coming...

What White Llama wants to be when it's grown up:
- a series of comment pieces by me, Clare
- carefully written and possibly even edited
- resplendent with colour coded headings to differentiate between topics that we will call 'comment' (black), 'rant' (red) and 'mememe' (majenta!). Anyone out there know how to do that?
- opinionated, and very welcoming of other people's views

What White Llama will not be:
- my addiction to world-wide-web-time-wasting revealed