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.