Category: Uncategorized

The Other Floods

We are all concerned about the terrible effects of the hurricane that has hit Texas and Louisiana. Families left without homes, industry and traffic systems brought to a standstill, and a sad loss of life too. Constant news reports bring us updates about the rescue efforts, appeals for charitable donations, and the immense cost of rebuilding and recovery once the waters subside. Everyone affected has my genuine sympathy, and I cannot imagine what they must be going through.

But this is in the richest country on Earth. A country that has the means to throw billions of dollars at the problem. A country where its own president is so wealthy, he can afford to donate $1,000,000 of his own money to the relief fund, and not even blink. America has a vast infrastructure, and is able to call upon huge resources of manpower, industry, and equipment. Whatever the terrible conditions that currently prevail, we can rest assured that everyone will receive help of some kind, eventually.

On the other side of the world, there has also been flooding. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries, has one third of its area under water. Over 50,000,000 inhabitants are directly affected, and more than 1,000 people have lost their lives. Whole towns and villages have disappeared, and the crops in the fields are all gone, destroyed by the still-rising flood waters. In Nepal, hundreds of thousands are homeless, and large parts of India are also affected. This is happening in an area without the means to cope. Countries with little or no infrastructure, no Blackhawk helicopters to evacuate stranded hospital patients, and without the means to provide most of those affected with basic aid, such as water and food.

Neither of these disasters is anybody’s fault. But one has happened in a place that can cope, and the other is still going on in places that cannot. Watching the news, you would have to search around for reports from Bangladesh. Somehow, stranded cars and pickup trucks, flooded urban highways, and military evacuations of victims seems to be more important, because it is happening in America. It is easy to forget those far-away countries, with languages and customs we don’t understand.

But their disaster is just as real.


Mexico wins the moral high ground

I have only just found out, but Mexico has made generous offers of help to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. The Mexican government expressed solidarity with the USA, and offered to send troops to aid with distribution of supplies, as well as providing medical teams and staff from rescue agencies.

This is the country that has been accused of so much by the current U.S. President, and the same country he wants to isolate America from, by building a wall along the border. There have been many appeals to help those suffering as a result of this hurricane. Donations to the Red Cross have been suggested, alongside many other disaster relief agencies. Mexico has offered unrestricted physical aid, and there is nothing to suggest that this is anything but genuine.

Not only did America decline this offer, Mr Trump took time to tweet that he will still build the wall, and will ensure that Mexico pays for its construction. Perhaps he should have been concentrating on sorting out this disaster in America’s fourth largest city, but no. Instead, he chose to be rude to a sovereign country and close neighbour, not only rejecting their offer out of hand, but dragging up the issues about the NAFTA trade deal and the wall at the same time.

Does he even know what ‘Diplomacy’ means?

Slavery: Back in the news again

After my recent post about the removal of Confederate monuments, I had decided to leave this whole issue well and truly alone, believe me. But Britain loves to take a lead from America, whenever it can. Burger chains, Baseball Caps, and Halloween parties are all good examples of the British love of American ideas. This has now extended to copying the idea about removing monuments that cause offence. Especially those that can be identified with slavery.

This is the article that started today’s furore.

Where we live, in Norfolk, they are very proud of Admiral Nelson. He was born here, and is celebrated in museums, street names, hotel names, and even on the county road signs, which proclaim “Norfolk. Nelson’s County”. But despite his reputation as the saviour of England during the wars with France, and his death in action on the deck of the flagship ‘Trafalgar’, it seems we are honouring a man of little worth. Someone who used his position in Parliament to oppose the abolition of slavery. His statue high on a plinth in Trafalgar Square is one of London’s landmarks, but we now find out we should be ashamed it is there. Of course, this was a long time ago, when we remember he was killed in 1805, but no matter. History is not what counts here, whether it is good history, or bad. We have grown since then, and learned to be better. Time to get his statue of of that plinth, and take down those road signs, surely?

Once again, I am reluctantly drawn into this argument, and cannot look away. I don’t know Afua Hirsch, though I am sure that she is a nice lady. She is a barrister, and a successful journalist, so I am comfortable in my presumption that she is well read, and highly intelligent. She has a background of an English father and Ghanaian mother, and was born in Norway. Interviewed on TV this evening she spoke confidently and with great assurance, defending her argument that we had to look again at memorials to anyone connected to slavery in any way, and remove them.

The reporter debated the issue with her, based on Nelson alone, and his reputation as an English hero. It was local news, I hasten to add, and not much happens in Norfolk. But he didn’t ask her the questions I wanted to ask her. He didn’t ask her about the once great Zulu nation, which was formed on slavery. He didn’t ask her about the African slave traders who sold their own people to western countries. I know it doesn’t make it any better that those places were involved in slavery. I don’t defend it, and it is unacceptable in any society, at any time. But it isn’t just about pre-Civil War America, or Imperial Britain.

He didn’t ask her if she had ever been to Rome, or visited the Pyramids in Egypt. Perhaps she has enjoyed a trip to Central America, to see the famous temples there, or ventured down to Peru, to marvel at the mountaintop remains of once great cities? All built by societies that had slavery at the heart of their very existence. A weekend in Athens perhaps, gazing at The Parthenon? Ancient Greece, the founding stone of Democracy, built on slavery. Or doesn’t that matter? Are they too far back to worry about? When does it end, and what is the cut-off date? Or does it only matter about black slaves from Africa?

I wanted to ask her all of those questions, because nobody else did.

History Is Bunk

Many of you may not be aware, and many will not even care, but there has been a great deal of controversy in America of late. Besides the antics of Mr Trump, his cabinet, and his family, or the bluster and counter bluster with North Korea, something else has been going on.

Some states have decided to remove statues and memorials dedicated to people who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, from 1861-1865. Famous generals like Robert E. Lee, and some statues of other officers, as well as memorials to fallen Confederates are being removed by the authorities. The reasons given for this vary, but the overall idea is to stop ‘glorifying’ people who fought in a cause that supported slavery. I could add quotes, or write all day about the many other reasons why that war happened, but there would be no point. It has become seen as a war against slave states, by states who did not support slavery, and that seems to be the end of it. In other places, the display on public buildings of the Confederate flag, the famous ‘Stars and Bars’, has been outlawed too.

Much of the reason for this backlash can be explained by the fact that Far-Right groups in the USA, including the KKK, and other White Supremacist organisations have ‘hijacked’ this flag, and used it for their own reasons. Also that these monuments are honoured by these same groups, some of which would like to see Secession from the Union happen again. It is claimed that the descendants of slaves, the modern day African-American citizens, are offended by having to walk past statues of Confederate generals, reminding them of the enslavement of their forefathers. The issue has been warmly embraced by Liberal white groups too, and pressure applied to get these monuments removed.

Just yesterday, I became drawn into a heated ‘blog argument’ on the issue, on the site of a very nice lady. I don’t intend to do that again, so no need to look away now…

So, why do I care? I am English after all. American history is for Americans to sort out, surely? Best if I kept my nose out, and let them remove what they want, without me antagonsing their citizens on the blogosphere. But I do care. I care because it is history. Not just American history, but world history too. I care in the same way that I cared when ISIS destroyed religious monuments in Iraq and Syria. When the Taliban destroyed ancient art in Afghanistan, or when the post-soviet Russians pulled down statues of Lenin. Taking away any memorial does not make the history go away, or become any more acceptable to future generations. Something else has to happen, before that is complete.

That something else is the gradual erosion of history by default. Not bothering to stock the books in the library. Removing the teaching of the period from the school syllabus. Forgetting to report on the anniversary of a significant event. It is so easily done, and has been done many times before. In a few generations, it is all forgotten, like it never happened. There is nothing left to remind us, after all. And what about the double standards? Slave-owning Andrew Jackson is on the US $20 bill, and his former plantation home is a ‘national monument’. (Jackson is to be removed from the currency, by 2020)
Mount Rushmore is built on land stolen from Native Americans who were driven off of it, and Florida’s Disney World was once home to the proud Seminole people. How do their descendants feel about those reminders of the desecration of tribal lands, I wonder?

Every nation has an uncomfortable past. My own country spent centuries conquering foreign nations, and reducing their people to little more than servants. But the history of that is still there to be seen, with the statues of colonialists like Cecil Rhodes and Robert Clive sitting proudly on their plinths. It doesn’t mean that the later generations were unaware of their shortcomings, and for all I know, may well provoke debate about their actions. Tens of thousands of people from an Indian or South African background walk past such monuments in London every day. Yet there are no cries to have them taken down. Trying to remove ‘inconvenient’ history is the first step down a very slippery slope that has no end. It was an American, Henry Ford, who once declared that “History is bunk.”

Let’s hope he is not proved right.

Sporting sadness

I will start by admitting that I am no fan of sport, let alone Tennis. I haven’t followed Wimbledon since the ‘tie break’ rule came in, and we lost the thrilling games of yesteryear. Plus ‘Baseline’ tennis also bored me to tears, and I yearned for a return to those ‘serve and volley’ days.

But my post today is about sadness. Sad at the desperation this country feels to achieve some acclaim, in modern sport. So much fuss today, about Johanna Konta. She is ‘representing’ Britain, and has achieved a breakthrough, to the Wimbledon semi-finals. Her success has been lauded as the first time a British woman has been through to this round, since Virginia Wade, in the equivalent of the tennis ‘stone age’.

How proud we are. How effusive are the commentators, and the excited news reports. Flags are flying high, British tennis is on the ascendant. Although she may be minced up by one of the Williams sisters, those automatons of modern tennis, it doesn’t matter. She is through, and we are almost ecstatic as a nation.

But hang on. Something is wrong here, surely?

This young lady was born of Hungarian parents, in Australia. She had an Australian passport, and played tennis for that country. Fair enough, she was born there. Johanna Konta, Australian tennis star. That sounds good. Well done to her. Australia has a great tennis heritage, and she should do well, given the right chances. But then her parents moved to the UK. Johanna went to Spain, to improve her tennis skills. So, Johanna decided to become a British citizen, just five years ago, in 2012. She then appeared as a tennis player for Great Britain. No longer Hungarian by the nationality of her parents, or Australian by the nationality of her birth. Suddenly, she is British, and our great white hope in tennis.

So, am I proud? No, quite frankly, I am ashamed. Because she is good at a particular sport, she is accepted immediately, unlike so many others struggling for a British Passport. Give her nationality, forget her Australian (and Hungarian) roots. She is as English as me. Hooray! Remember Zola Budd? I do.

As far as I am concerned, this is simply unacceptable. Sporting prowess should not equal nationality.

Grenfell Tower: The London Fire

I watched this incident with more than usual interest. I worked in the ambulance station around the corner from this building, for more than twenty years. I have been inside on numerous occasions, to deal with the many 999 calls generated by such housing density in one place.

The area is North Kensington, close to better-known parts like Notting Hill, Holland Park, and Portobello Road, all accessed with an easy walk. Not far from that tower block, you will find houses that would cost millions to buy, alongside similar tower blocks in the same street. So, it is an area of great financial inequality, as well as one of the most racially diverse in London.

Blocks like Grenfell Tower once seemed to be the answer to clearing slums, and providing basic housing for ordinary working people and their families. After all, high-rise living is just as popular with the rich, who are willing to pay small fortunes for better-quality apartments in very tall blocks all over the city. But these blocks were not the same as those destined for the wealthy. They were built with costs in mind; rooms just big enough, the minimum level of outside space around them, inadequate car-parking, and a visible lack of safety features.

Inside, there were lifts big enough to take a coffin when necessary, but only a few people at a time. They didn’t always work either, which left the elderly and infirm trapped on higher floors, unable to manage the stairs. There was no ornamentation, no art on the walls, and no concierge to supervise the huge block. Much later, they became little more than a ‘dumping ground’ for the local council to house refugees, immigrants, and people discharged from mental health institutions. Inside the poorest standard of accommodation available, they placed the poorest and most vulnerable people.

Even during the much-vaunted refurbishment of this block, corners were cut, and costs saved. Warnings were ignored, alongside the pleas of those living there. It was never a question of if something like this was going to happen, rather than how soon it would. Since this tragedy, many questions are being asked, and the blame game has started in earnest. The council officials seek to exclude themselves from blame, by stating that they gave over the running of this property to a private company. The government ministers concerned seek to exclude themselves from blame, by putting the emphasis on the council itself. It has emerged that there was no contingency plan in place, to deal with such an event. It has also been stated that adequate fire precautions would have been ‘too expensive’. There is even the chilling likelihood that the number of fatalities has been deliberately played down, as many of the occupants do not have the language skills necessary to state their concerns.

Can you just imagine if this had happened in a luxury apartment block overlooking the river? Or maybe inside an iconic building, like The Shard? What if all those killed and terribly injured had been rich and influential people? Would they have had to try to occupy the council offices to get answers to their questions, or to arrange temporary accommodation? Those are rhetorical questions of course, and we all know the answers.

Poor and ordinary lives don’t matter. It’s as simple as that.

UK Terror attacks: The difficult questions

Last night, there was another terrorist attack on the streets of London. This follows the Manchester bombing, and the Westminster attack before that.

The man responsible for the Westminster attack was described as being, ‘known to the security services’.
The man responsible for the Manchester bomb was described as being, ‘known to the security services’.

Although it is too early to speculate at the moment, there is a good chance that the men responsible for last night’s attack will be described as being, ‘known to the security services’.

The head of the counter-terrorism command has stated that it takes thirty officers to maintain constant surveillance on one individual. There are currently some 20,000 individuals in the UK who are described as ‘Subjects of Interest’, regarding terrorism. Keeping tabs on all of these is obviously logistically impossible. So, the attacks will continue, as those responsible for trying to stop them are too few in number to make it possible to stop them all.

Should radicalised Islamist citizens be allowed to continue to spread their words of hate, encourage others to kill innocent people, and go about their business unmolested?
Do we have to wait for them to kill and injure large numbers of people before bringing them to justice for conspiracy in those events? It doesn’t relate to the individuals who carry them out, as they want to die, either by being shot by police, or blowing themselves up.

But those carrying out the attacks are only a small part of a huge organisation of terrorists operating in the UK. Many are well-known to the authorities, but are still allowed to travel freely between the UK and countries like Syria and Libya. Some receive benefit payments as they do not work, and others live normal lives with no apparent source of income. Remote surveillance of their computers, emails, mobile phones, and social media use shows that they are conspiring with others to promote terrorism, and to try to get men to carry out these suicidal attacks on innocent members of the public.

Do these people still deserve their rights in modern Britain? Should free speech and freedom of movement extend to them? Should they be issued with passports, and allowed to travel? Should they be allowed to hire vehicles to use to run over and kill people?

I have no definite answers. But I am beginning to believe that if these attacks are to be stopped, or at least reduced in number, we are going to have to seriously re-examine the tolerance in our society that allows them to happen.
And it is a dark day when I feel compelled to write such words.