Archive for the ‘History’ Category


December 12, 2015

Both cities start with a B. And both are universally disliked, if not hated, by the English—although for different reasons.

I came into Belfast from Derry—it’s a difficult journey, not least because of the weather. I’ve driven it in tough conditions, when a snowstorm of blizzard proportions almost blocked the road, and you couldn’t touch the brake down the long grades.

But this time all we got was rain, rain, rain.

Belfast was deep in the Christmas spirit, and when I say spirit(s), I choose the word advisedly—this side of Norway, no one drinks like the Irish. For a city that’s seen more than its fair share of violence, and occasionally still does, people are fun and happy, and the music is as good as anywhere in Ireland.

Of course you could go down into the Shankill or the Falls Road, Protestant and Catholic enclaves separated by an eighteen foot ‘peace’ wall, where matters are quite different—but everyone knows about West Belfast, and all cities have similar areas, from South Central LA to the Cape Flats.

An army truck in the city center. Echoes of a different Belfast.

An army truck parked in the city center. Echoes of a different time.

You might be excused for thinking the trucks hark back to an earlier time in Northern Ireland—but wait… that billboard? It’s in Dutch! Unless William of Orange has returned to his old stomping ground, we must be somewhere else.

And we are: this is the heart of Brussels, a city under siege.

By the time I got there, the week was beginning to get long, and my suitcase had accumulated bottles of whiskey. In the airport, I’d unintentionally added a bottle of Green Spot to my collection, along with some excellent Irish cheeses.

I’d heard about the Green Spot  in Derry, and when I presented it at the till, yer man said “I like your taste in whiskey.”

“It’s not for me—it’s a surprise for a friend.” I pointed over at the bar. “Birthday.”

“Oh, this is far too good to give away.”

I gave it a thought. Triple distilled. “OK, ring up two.”

Where the Emerald Isle had been festive and free-flowing, Brussels was battened down. Army everywhere, camouflage and semi-automatic weapons. Deployed in groups of three—I recalled the old joke about Brazilian cops: one can read, one can write, and one likes to hang out with intellectuals.

At the airport, the train stations, in the metro—even inside the swank Metropole hotel. Scary shit. I had some time in the early evening, so I thought I’d see what it was all about.

The news said that Molenbeek, or Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, was a stone’s throw, or perhaps a Molotov cocktail away, from the center of Brussels. I took the metro west toward Beekkant.

A quarter of an hour is enough to arrive at a different Belgium, where the hijab is everywhere in evidence, although I didn’t see anything more draconian.

I set off in the darkness down Rue des Quatres Vents, the street of the four winds. It was a lonesome walk down a drab and empty street. Young men stood around here and there, one with a car hood up, tinkering under the faint glow of a street light, others simply milling—after all, Molenbeek means millbrook.

Four winds street, heading toward the mosque.

Four Winds Street, heading past Vanderkindere on the way to the mosque.

On the next block, a woman walked toward Rue Delaunoy, her headscarf tight against the cold. Round that corner is the mosque, I was getting the odd look, and suddenly I felt like all the windows hid some sinister observer.

These streets are no different from places where I lived in England, bits of Birmingham and Manchester look worse—what’s absent is any form of commerce, in sharp contrast to Hamburg’s Steindamm, where Mohammed Atta and his cronies planned the 9-11 attacks.

Rundown cars, bleak buildings, and that unnerving feeling that I stuck out like a sore thumb—neighborhoods like this have a collective police antenna.

Delaunoy was raided last month following the Paris attacks, and immediately put Molenbeek on the map—but the neighborhood has been part of almost every terror attack since 2001—the murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud in 2001, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting in 2014, the Thalys train attack last August, and the Paris tragedy in November.

The great cathedral, an enduring symbol of the Judaico-Christian way of life, illuminated for a Christmas concert.

The great cathedral, an enduring symbol of the Judaico-Christian way of life, illuminated for a Christmas concert.

Contrast that with the Grande Place, and you see two different cities.

I was in town for a meeting to do with a particular form of growing fish, called IMTA. By cultivating other species, you improve the sustainability and environmental footprint of fish like salmon and bass.

I often mention the acronym has many other meanings, such as the Irish Massage Therapists Association, or the International Models Talent Agency—it’s nice when we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

The gap between the end of my meeting and the departure of my plane narrowed, and in the end I had to run for the hills. No cabs in rainy Brussels on a Friday evening.

And run I did, hefting my whiskey-laden luggage onto the moving walkway of the metro. A girl a few feet in front of me jumped in fright at the noise—yep, the locals are jittery.

As I settled down on the empty train to the airport, I came up with yet another meaning for IMTA: Islamic Molenbeek Terror Associates.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.



Eleven Plus

December 5, 2015

The British magazine Private Eye calls it educashun, to highlight the misfortunes of our school and university systems.

After the Portuguese revolution in 1974, exams were deemed a fascist concept. As such, they were either abolished, or became as lengthy as Fidel Castro’s speeches—students could bring in all their textbooks and consult at will.

There’s a general misconception that book-supported exams make things easier, but that’s not the case, except (very possibly) under unlimited time conditions (which defeats the whole purpose of an exam). This is particularly true in math and science, because for any question that uses a formula, you need to know both what to use and how to use it.

The British and American education systems privilege independent thought, whereas the Latin countries often emphasize rote learning. The obvious consequence of this is that kids in Brazil or Italy have less chances to be creative.

Here’s an example. In an exam, the teacher might ask an elementary geometry question: What do the angles of a pentagon add up to?

That’s a lazy question, and it deserves a lazy answer: 540 degrees. Kids often have that kind of stuff written on some part of their body, or on a piece of paper secreted about their person.

A better question, which would force a child to reason, it to ask them to use their knowledge about three- and four-sided figures to work out the answer—it’s easy, and it’s fun.

From the top, you start with the blue pentagon, and then you work your way clockwise. Of course, you need to know what clockwise actually is, and since most kids tell time on their cellphones, you’d need to back up a little.

Making kids think. What is the sum of the internal angles of a pentagon?

Making kids think. Work out the sum of the internal angles of a pentagon?

If you know the sum of angles of a triangle (any triangle), and the same for a quadrilateral (any quad), then it’s a piece of cake—go for the orange pentagon and you’re all set. If you’re not sure of the quad, but do know the sides of a rectangle add to 360 (after all, they are right angles), then the pink job will work: three triangles and a square, but you’ll need to knock off a couple of right angles (how many?)

If you just like triangles, go for yellow—how cool is that?

Finally, if you like to think a little more, go for red. In that one, you’ve got a pentagon inside a rectangle. You can use the four triangles left out of the pentagon to work out the answer, but you need a spot of trig and a smidge of algebra.

No matter which way you do it, you have to think. You won’t find the answer in a book, and you’re on a schedule. Exams must test your capacity for analyzing a problem (rather than regurgitating material dredged out of the tiny letters inscribed on your forearms)—but they must also test your self-reliance, your capacity to solve something on your own, and against the clock.

These are metrics of intellectual capacity and productivity. They reflect preparation and lead to achievement. ‘The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.’

It’s worth contrasting this with sports. Practically all team sports run against the clock (baseball and cricket go against the grain), while individual sports, from gladiators to tennis, have no time limit.

This week, the new government of Portugal—an extraordinary mishmash of socialists supported by communists and the far-left—abolished  an exam kids took to monitor progress through school. The debate resonated with ‘evidence’ of children suffering from depression, together with a number of other social tragedies stemming from this hideous practice of child abuse.

Later in the week, the question of college fees arose. One far-left parliamentarian glibly claimed that throughout Europe, only the U.K. has higher university fees than Portugal.

Unfortunately, Portugal doesn’t hand out pinnochios, so you’ll have to take my word for it—the claim is a load of bollocks. Actually, don’t. Try this, this, and this—the last link is poorly written but fairly accurate.

The UK is significantly more expensive than other EU countries, since Tony Blair introduced top-up fees some years ago. Among other things, this led to Scotland charging fees for English students who go to college north of the border, but not for other EU citizens.

That comparison to Portugal? Tuition is potentially more expensive in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland, and undoubtedly so in the Netherlands, Sweden, and of course the UK.

But if you contextualize for purchasing power parity (PPP but not the Blair kind) then fees in Portugal (of the order of 1000 € per year) are high in relative terms.

Twenty years ago, before fees were introduced, universities were full of ‘professional’ students, who did nothing and stayed in the system for up to ten years. In addition, students couldn’t object much to poor teaching—it was free, so don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

My final note today is about plagiarism, which has rocketed as more material becomes available on the net. Universities in the US and UK use systems such as Turnitin, where students verify their work on the ‘plagiometer’ before handing it in.

Why do they worry? Because in the UK a threshold of twenty percent is admissible, but any score above that means the work was copied. Equivalent software exists in many languages, and they all work in an identical way—they trawl or index the web for text similarities, and then apply a proximity algorithm to determine the grade.

When a tool like that is unavailable, more classical methods are used. One is to require students to deliver handwritten assignments.

It doesn’t stop them copying, but at least they have skin in the game.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.



The Log

November 30, 2015

I’ve been trying to write this for three days, but the words have been elusive.

It’s not writer’s block, or even blighter’s rock, but merely lack of that effervescent potion—time. When everything presses down, time just sublimates. As if on cue, my computer suddenly shut down, demonstrating that when the gods are stacked against you, the only recourse is to stick to your guns.

My plan was to travel to Baiona this weekend, but that never happened—too many other things to do, so my trip to the town where Martin Pinzon docked fell by the wayside. There’s a mock-up of the Pinta in the harbor, but I doubt it has a lot to see.

The fact is Pinzon’s return is scarcely documented—he got to Spain before Columbus, whose landing in Portugal generated much nonsense about the admiral’s service to the Portuguese crown. Pinzon was half dead when he landed, and by the time he arrived in Palos he had only days to live.

The courtyard of Pinzon's house in Palos de la Frontera.

The courtyard of Pinzon’s house in Palos de la Frontera.

I’m not even sure whether Pinzon sailed from Baiona to Palos, or whether he traveled overland. My gut feeling is the former, because the crew would have wanted to bring the ship home—after all the owner was aboard—and yet there’s no mention of the caravel returning to Andalucia.

I have visions of a dying man being transported on a cart down the rickety and winding roads of Castille, south into the Extremadura, and finally into Andalucia. But there’s a large book on my nightstand, written by a ‘Catedrático’ from Seville, a history of the Pinzon brothers, and maybe that holds the key.

However, it’s odd that in the house of the celebrated mariner, now turned into a museum, there’s absolutely no mention of the ship’s return—not a single painting of Martin, whereas Columbus has been the object of much brushwork. The museum shows a purposeful-looking man, with the long hair and cap typical of the period,  but it emphasizes that this is a mere artist’s impression.

The only known image of Martin Alonso Pinzon. There are no actual portraits of either Martin or his younger brother Vicente Yanez.

The only known image of Martin Alonso Pinzon. There are no actual portraits of either Martin or his younger brother Vicente Yanez.

No log book, no chronicle—most bizarre. The only log, delivered by Columbus, is a messy document, when compared to the diary of Álvaro Velho, who described Vasco da Gama’s journey to India with great accuracy.

Pinzon was a pirate, contrary to what modern-day Spanish history would have you think. As a consequence, a ship’s diary seems improbable, particularly given the deteriorating health of the captain.

Nevertheless, it is strange that the Pinta’s return from the Caribbean, after its separation from the Nina, should be completely undocumented. This is particularly odd given the ‘pleitos colombinos’, a string of lawsuits that presented evidence that Pinzon, and not Columbus, was the true discoverer of the indies.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.


November 21, 2015

Aujourd’hui je commence en français. C’est ma forme de dire que l’Europe, enfin, toute société occidentale, est avec la France.

It’s been a few decades since I wrote in French, but I’m not worried about spelling or grammar—I’m worried about Europe.

The most important lessons we can learn from the Paris tragedy are historical—and my texts, and in good part my books, are supported by history.

History is to human civilization what biology is to living organisms, and physics to planetary creation—we reflect this understanding by using terms such as medical history, economic history, and political history.

And history, like biology, displays both convergent and divergent evolution—the classic biological examples are the eye of the human and the octopus, and the adaptive radiation of the pentadactyl limb to form hands, wings, claws, and fins.

Christianity and Islam converge in many ways—I read a good deal about both when I wrote The India Road, and then a good deal more about Islam to research Atmos Fear.

One of the common characteristics of the great religions is that they were created by people, not by gods. Initially I wrote five great religions, then reduced to four, then three, and then took out the number altogether. I’ll leave it to you to interpret my reasoning.

Islam started in the year 610, with the revelations of the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad—presumably this is the same Gabriel who shows up in the Torah and the Bible, and later lent his name to Vasco da Gama’s flagship.

Jesus also features in Islam as Isa ibn Maryam (son of Mary), as do Moses and Abraham, both of whom appear repeatedly in the Koran.

Islamic faith became a force for unity in the seventh century, and provided the context for a caliphate, an extended Muslim empire that spread west from Arabia to the Atlantic coast of Morocco, the Maghreb-el-Acsa.

When the Umayyad crossed the strait and invaded Spain, Iberia was a motley land of kingdoms that resembled the warlord fiefdoms of modern-day Afghanistan. There were Visigoths, Celts, Vandals, Alans, and Franks ensconced in their own territories—here too there are similarities with the tribal conflicts in North Africa, the difference being that these conflicts persist today.

With some exceptions (Egypt comes to mind) the ‘countries’ in the Arab world were artificially established by Western politicians, trying to impose the European model of social organization—Churchill, for instance, is responsible for the creation of Iraq after World War I.

Then as now, air power was preferred to Western boots on the ground.

Several times in the early 1920s, when various tribal groups in Iraq rose up in opposition to the British, the air force was put into action, bombing not only military targets but civilian areas as well. Killing and wounding women and children were considered a way of intimidating the population into submission. This included the use of mustard and other poison gases.

In 1919, Uncle Winston told the British cabinet that “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas . . . I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against the uncivilized tribes. Gas is a more merciful weapon than high explosives and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war. The moral effect is also very great. There can be no conceivable reason why it should not be resorted to.”

To Westerners, 1919 seems like many years ago, but to Arabs, it’s only five generations.

Time and tradition obviously matter: in 711 the Moors conquered Spain, and later extended their domain to the West. Iberia became Al-Andalus—and although the occupation of Portugal by the Mouros ended in 1249 with the conquest of Faro, Spain was only fully liberated from the Moros after the siege of Granada in 1492.

The Arab vision of Iberia is therefore radically different from the European one—to a supporter of a new caliphate, Islam ruled Iberia for seven centuries, and it has only belonged to the ‘crusaders’ for five since then.

Christians and Muslims diverge in how they view their personal context, a fact that is simply not understood in the West.  The Western paradigm of nation has endured and consolidated, gone are the Visigoths and Franks.

If you’re asked to rank yourself, setting down the five points that define you, typically the first is your nationality. I am a Frenchman, She is an Englishwoman. As an American, or a German, you bear the passport, respect the flag, and feel a common bond with your countrymen. At a second level, the American might inform you she is a Texan, or a New Yorker. Perhaps in third place that she is a Mormon.

This is the dilemma Western nations struggle with. For some Muslims, religion sits above nationality, and religious law supersedes national law. I find it impossible to accept the punditry that recurrently explains that ‘nowhere is it written in the Koran that…’ followed by some abominable crime.

If you live in the United States, it is American law that governs your actions—Exodus and Leviticus proclaim ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ but if you act on the recommendation of the old testament, you’ll be subject to the US penal code.

The men and women from Birmingham and Brussels who leave Europe to fight for the Islamic State are not English, nor are they Belgian—they’re united by their religious beliefs, not patriotism.

The Perfect Prince, the Catholic Kings of Spain, and Richard the Lionheart all understood they were fighting a common enemy—the Moors. There were no countries, no Morocco, Algeria, or Libya.

In the twenty-first century, it’s a grave mistake to deconstruct movements or aggregate tribes into nationalities, and to see this war through the conventional eyes of nations.

History knows why a Belgian of Moroccan descent might attack Paris in retaliation for Syria.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Blue Moon

November 14, 2015

When I was growing up, America projected an image of opportunity and hope. Europe was stuck between the dark despair of the Iron Curtain—what a great name that was, by the way, when compared with childish epithets like ‘evil-doer’—and transatlantic freedom.

Slowly the world shifted. To Europeans, the U.S. now comes across as a place of incomprehensible gun violence, religious fundamentalism, and seemingly demented politicians.

Of course Europe has its fair share of nutters, but their eccentricities don’t project them into the mainstream. Maybe it’s because Europe has lived longer, and spent a long and confused adolescence coping with the likes of Henry VIII, Napoleon, and Hitler.

‘Trump rants’, as evidenced by his recent effort in Iowa, and the psychotic confessions of Ben Carson, give a whole new meaning to the circus that US elections have become. This plays out on the public stage over the last two years out of every four—that’s fifty percent of your lifetime.

Average life expectancy in the United States is seventy-eight years, so the average citizen is bombarded with election drivel for  a period of thirty-nine years. Excessive?

The distribution of life expectancy is surprisingly interesting—Hawaii has the highest (81.3 years) and Mississippi the lowest, with 74.96 years. The last eight states have an average of 75 years, and all are poor southern states: Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia, and Mississippi.

There’s a huge wealth gap in these regions, and it’s incredibly easy to find. Driving the wrong way out of Nashville or walking in certain parts of Memphis, looking at the stores and ads, and just talking to the people.

And this blight of poverty doesn’t just split communities, in some cases it affects whole towns. Beattyville, Kentucky, is classified as America’s third poorest town, and its misery can’t even be blamed on immigration—ninety-eight percent of the population is white.

An abandoned truck grows roots in East Kentucky.

An abandoned truck grows roots in East Kentucky.

The median annual income per household is below fifteen thousand dollars, and there’s a high school dropout rate of 33%. Elmore Leonard wrote about the drama of Eastern Kentucky through the eyes of US Marshal Raylan Givens—this is a land traditionally dedicated to coal mining, inhabited by poor, hard-working people, who were not averse to a spot of illegal distillation.

The coal vanished, and the moonshine’s been replaced by other drugs. In Beattyville, drug addiction is a way of life. Fueled by welfare (just a touch of irony there) checks, people of all ages are caught up in an infernal machine that involves doctors, pharmacies, and seniors who trade prescription drugs for food.

Such communities are the badlands of opiates, crystal meth, and the other substances, old and new, that kill your family as effectively as a drone strike.

My demographic data was drawn from here, and my search for other issues of real concern led me to the racial component. Partly this is because I’ve often been struck by similarities between the States and South Africa.

Some of that comes from the huge open spaces, the sheer size of the land, but it’s more than that. The ratio of whites to blacks is roughly opposite (9:1 in the US), but the segmentation of society, with areas of desperate poverty bordering almost obscene wealth, is often comparable.

When I read about Beattyville I wondered how poor non-white US towns could get. Actually, they don’t get much worse, and the only two towns in more desperate circumstances have American Indian and Latino populations.

The very nature of classification by race is quintessentially Anglo-Saxon. US forms have it, and South Africa categorizes race into five groups: black; colored; white; Indian/Asian; other.

I made an effort to discover the proportion of black people in Spain or Italy, and in Europe as a whole—not so easy: researching European ethnicity comes up with gems such as Normans and Catalans, but no ready-made racial stats. Ask the same question for England and it’s the first hit on Google—boxed in and complete with images.

The US life expectancy site reveals that Asians live longer than whites, and black people in most areas live up to four years less. Other regional differences are fascinating: where is the lowest average life expectancy for blacks? Washington DC, with 71.6 years. And where do white people live longest?

You guessed it—Washington DC, where they live 84.3 years, a full thirteen years more than blacks. Not only do they beat African Americans hands down, but they outlive Minnesotans (the next in line) by a full three years.

In between a destitute white trash town running on opiates, and the fact that the nation’s capital ‘boasts’ a twenty-five percent gap between the lifespan of whites and blacks, there must be more important things to discuss than whether Carson’s belt buckle stopped the knife.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Candy Crush

November 7, 2015

The girl ran out the courtroom, face hidden, tears streaming down her cheeks.

The doors opened wider and two burly men walked out, bearing Glock sidearms. They were dressed in blue serge, the words Prison Service stenciled across their jackets. Between them walked the girl’s husband, handcuffed.

There are a number of places where human misfortune congregates—tribunals, hospitals, jails… and from time to time airports.

When a plane goes down, the destination airport becomes a wailing wall.

But if the plane has been blown out of the sky, then the matter becomes incomprehensible, at least to the average citizen. This slammed home in Russia this week, as more became known about the Airbus crash.

Putin’s executive reacted in truly Soviet style—denial to the hilt. After the missile claims were dismissed, the airline CEO gave a press conference and said the plane was brought down. Putin countered. The UK blocked flights to Sharm el Sheikh and grounded tourists. The Egyptian government erupted in loud protests. Egypt’s president began an official visit to the UK. The Russians reacted on shared Western intel.

It was a bomb. For ISIS, this was a no-brainer.

Putin is pouring fire on anti-Assad areas of the Mid-East, while Obama, completely bereft of any initiative, makes faint noises about separation of US and Russian planes.

Egypt’s Sisi is a sworn enemy, after the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood organization—which shares a Sunni core with ISIS.

Blow up the plane, send a message to the Kremlin that involvement in Syria has tragic consequences in Saint Petersburg or Moscow, and screw up the Egyptian economy, thus weakening the military government.

In some twisted formula of tragedy, perhaps ordinary Russians now understand better the pain ordinary people in Holland felt after the MH-17 missile strike.

As eyes turned to the bomb theory, the immediate question became airport security at El Salam. The Egyptian authorities were quick to point out that Sharm el Sheikh has hosted top-level summits—disingenuous when you consider the security that accompanies VIPs—Obama doesn’t fly sleazyjet.

The UK press is full of tales of security officials sleeping on the job, bribes being taken for queue-jumping, and my firm favorite, a baggage-screener spotted playing Candy Crush on his cellphone instead of watching the X-ray screen.

Was Candy Crush to blame? They say Semtex smells remarkably like marzipan.

Was Candy Crush to blame? They say Semtex smells remarkably like marzipan.

Whether it was Candy Crush or someone’s cousin, I’m still perplexed—a passenger may have been given a package to carry—perhaps a gift from local lounge lizard Ahmed to Irina, a homely office worker from Saint Petersburg who found love on a Red Sea package tour. But that doesn’t seem like guaranteed success—find the bomb at security, there goes the element of surprise.

So either a suicide bomber took something on board past security, or someone placed a bomb inside a passenger’s bag, or even inside the hold. In the first case the plane manifest will  reveal the bomber, and in the others, ground staff are involved.

Of course if the Egyptians catch the perpetrators of the bombing there will be a spot of torture involved. In Atmos Fear, there’s a chapter that takes place in Cairo, and I share an excerpt here.

The hawkers cried out to passing men and women, shoppers dressed in jilbabs, some of the women wearing the hijab, some in western garb.

Below the pump, two stories underground, the Yemeni let out a long and agonized scream. Even if the square above had been petrified into sepulchral silence, no sound would emerge. The catacombs of the General Directorate of State Security Investigations were built to last.

Senior Interrogator First Class Al-Maghri took great pride in his job. His training went way back to the days of the young Egyptian republic, when General Nasser procured the services of the KGB, and as his country drew closer to the US after Camp David, he spent time in the United States, and became familiar with what the CIA had to offer. The American interrogation bible was the Kubark manual, and Al-Maghri had been a diligent student.

The GDSSI interrogator looked at the scene in front of him. The Yemeni had been depleted of all human condition, stripped naked, his glasses crushed on arrival by a heavy boot. The American manual prescribed many things, including psychotropic drugs, isolation, and severe disorientation. The mild-mannered Egyptian, who looked more like a museum curator, with his aquiline nose and shining pate, had tried them all. But in the end, he preferred pain.

And if the men who committed this atrocity ever make it before a judge, they’ll be kept in a steel cage for the duration of their trial. In Portugal, the accused cannot even be handcuffed inside the courtroom—that’s why the prison guards stood ready at the back.

As I left the courthouse the rain poured down in buckets, and I stood in line to pay parking. But the guy in front of me wasn’t parked, he was buying tangerines.

I marveled at the third world ingenuity of the attendant—she not only handled the payments but sold fruit on the side for cash—you couldn’t get a machine to do that.

It made me laugh—in the midst of all the concerns about tax evasion, here was an illegal business thriving in the official courthouse car park, and no doubt it counted ministry of justice staff among its patrons—perhaps even judges. Still chuckling at this delicious irony,  I opened the car door. A man tapped me on the shoulder.

He was a middle-aged gypsy—thickset, swarthy, with sharp green eyes. I turned and he fished something from his pocket.

“Do you want to buy a watch?”

I was intrigued enough to step back into the rain. I looked at the man. I couldn’t help thinking he knew the inside of that courthouse pretty well—probably walked out between those prison guards on more than one occasion. It’s been years since someone tried to sell me a watch in a car park—and that was in downtown Bangkok.

“No. I don’t need a watch.”

“But look at this one. It’s a very good price.” He pulled out a Swatch and held it up.

“Thanks, but no.” I though back to the courthouse foyer. It was crowded with cops, National Guard, plainclothes detectives. “Don’t you think this is a problem? Selling watches in this particular car park?”

He shrugged. “These other ones… at least look.”

“Sorry. I really don’t need one.” I escaped the rain and drove away, watching the woman sell another bag of tangerines as the barrier went up.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

The Day of the Triffids

October 31, 2015

You may know the book. The English science fiction writer John Wyndham published it in 1951, depicting a deadly (and mobile) plant species that took over Britain.

Like any science fiction book it’s a bit of a leap of faith, because it requires the triffids to possess specialized sensory organs—plants have tissues only, not organs—arguably it’s that level of complexity that ultimately kills us, as microorganisms, cancerous cells, or toxic chemicals destroy organs like the brain, liver, or lungs.

Plants, on the contrary, have been granted eternal life—they can be laid to waste by disease, just as we can, but as a rule, gardens outlive gardeners.

It’s a great read, but as always, the best question is why?

Why would plants want to destroy humans, what purpose would it serve? After all, humans—particularly English humans—are obsessed with plants: they grow them, nurture them, proudly exhibit them, and enter their sexual organs into competitions.

And the difference between humans and humus is only a couple of letters and fourscore years, so in that sense, why triffids should bother with us is beyond me. Now if Wyndham had equipped them with a digestive system…

Yes, we like our land plants. But when it comes to the sea, things can be a little different. Every so many years, usually between five and ten, the ocean plays a little trick on us. The trade winds that blow off South America toward the northeast weaken, and the coastal waters off Peru are no longer blown offshore.

The warmer water evaporates quicker, and as the southern hemisphere approaches midsummer’s day the skies open—Christmas becomes a nightmare of floods and disasters as the Christ child—El Niño—delivers buckets of rain onto pastures and villages.

The mischievous baby Jesus causes all manner of climate upsets when he gets going, and this year he’s out in force. In 2003 he directed the giant floods in South Africa and Mozambique, when the Olifants River, a tributary of the Limpopo, rose over thirty feet above its normal level.

This year, and south of the equator it’s still only springtime, the plants are causing all the chaos. From the diary of Columbus, transcribed by Las Casas, the admiral enters the Sargasso Sea in late September 1492, and descriptions of seaweed and floating prairies abound. Columbus had a good eye for detail, and we learn that the seaweed is brown. Here is an excerpt from Clear Eyes.

He could see the captain talking to the pilot Nino on the poop deck, pointing at the Pinta and the Nina—both vessels were practically becalmed. Bastos lowered a baler and pulled up a tangled mass of weed.

Around him, other sailors did their ablutions and muttered uncertainly about the vegetation in the water.

“Es un mar de yerba,” one of the men said, a sea of grass.

“And no land anywhere,” said another.

“Mala yerba.” The two sailors crossed themselves.

The muttering grew louder, as the men again doubted whether they would ever find land to the west, and most importantly, whether they would ever return home—in one week, it would be two months since they had left Palos de la Frontera. The sea was like a pancake and the sails hardly moved.

Columbus’s fleet was becalmed in an area of high pressure, stuck between the north east trades and the westerlies. This pressure band, at around thirty degrees north, was later christened the horse latitudes, due the practice of throwing the animals overboard to conserve drinking water.

The two sailors looked aft at the mizzen mast, and noted the flaccid lateen. Despair set in.

“Estamos plantados num mar de coles.”—we’re planted in a sea of cabbages. The men’s despair slowly turned into a seething anger at the foreigner who had put them in this predicament.

Bastos looked at the seaweed in his hand. It was a patchwork of dark and light brown, and the fronds were knotty and ribbed. The Portuguese had seen similar weeds in Lisbon—the Tagus was full of oysters, and a brown wrack was often fixed to the oyster shell—but the brown plant was smoother than this one, with bladders all along the frond.

He knew that when those brown weeds detached they might survive a short while, then die. But these ones were clearly thriving, just floating at the water surface, and there was a mighty forest of brown, as far as the eye could see.

Bastos understood how they floated—each plant had dozens of grape-like berries on it, each fixed on its own little stalk.

Berries! Bagas!

Something was bothering him. Where had he heard that word before?

In the fall of 2015, the Sargassum has taken on a life of its own. Scientists are perplexed about the reasons, but the weed has been causing mayhem in Mexico and points south, all the way to Barbados.

Sargassum piles on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, in July 2015.

Sargassum piles on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, in July 2015.

The drifting seaweed has not let up. Changes in wind patterns change surface currents, rain brings nutrients that can cause explosive plant growth, and temperature shifts regulate how seaweeds live. Hoteliers in the Caribbean are offering discount packages, and towns are pulling men out of the drunk tank if they join beach clean-up gangs.

The Cancun Maritime Chief, who boasts the wonderful name of Mariscal de la Selva, literally jungle shellfish, explained that half a million cubic feet of seaweed have been cleaned up—in the sea, assuming that the seaweed layer is at most one foot deep, due to access to sunlight, the Sargassum would cover ten football fields.

When the seaweed comes ashore, it drives a fly boom, eager to feed on the decomposing organic matter. But the El Niño downpours also cause weird and wonderful sights.

The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is the driest place on earth. The average rainfall is just over half an inch per year, and there are weather stations that have never recorded a rain event. 2015 is different: the desert is vivid with the color of the malva, or mallow, flower.

A riot of color in the world's driest place.

A riot of color in the world’s driest place.

These amazing scenes will no doubt find their way into the more sensationalist media as the Paris summit on climate change, hosted by the United Nations, goes into full swing.

But the changes we see this year have everything to do with the naughty child, and most probably little to do with climate change.

Because this year, the triffids are coming.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.



October 25, 2015

The girl bulldozed onto the train, shouting “I can’t believe it, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, IT’S ME FIRST TIME ABROAD!”

She had long black hair, heavy mascara, and the obligatory piercings. “I CAN’T BELIIEEVE IT!” she shouted again in a broad Welsh accent, turning heads at the far end of the compartment.

The Dutch are a notoriously relaxed bunch—they didn’t even flinch as her boyfriend tanked down the aisle, the automatic door sliding shut behind him.

The girl looked around, making sure she’d captured everyone’s attention, and then pulled furiously on the handle. “Howdya open the FUCKIN’ DOOR?” She shouted.

Someone smiled at the Welsh halfwit and turned the handle—the door silently slid open.

“Oh, THANKS, BABE!” she gushed, and began shouting for her boyfriend. I sighed and leaned back against the bulkhead, immediately activating the fire bell as the button connected with my skull; the Dutchmen didn’t give a shit about that either—the alarm was considerably quieter than the girl.

I first set foot in Amsterdam in 1980, and I’ve returned on multiple occasions. The attraction remains unblemished—each trip offers up a new set of Brits, mad as a basket of fish, hell-bent on enjoying the wild and wonderful city.

The Netherlands remains the only European country where pot is completely legal, though in many countries the authorities have decriminalized possession, realizing it’s pointless to turn spirited youngsters into hardened criminals.

But marijuana is certainly not the only business model in Amsterdam—dope joins hands with sex, alcohol, and a stream of derived services: tattoo parlors, cannabis ice cream shops, and often a hybrid model where souvenirs range from herb-themed fridge magnets to large ornamental red dildos, triple X emblazoned along the shaft—these creatures are made of china, and look eminently breakable: please don’t try this at home.

The coffee shops are informal, relaxed affairs, with an extended product list detailing name, origin, price, and consequences of the mind-altering substances on offer. The customer look varies from jolly to confused, and I presume on occasion a misguided stranger actually ducks in for coffee. For reasons I don’t fully understand, patrons can no longer light up within the store, but are instead forced out into the street or into bars where smoking is permitted.

Window Dressing in Kanaalstraat

Window dressing in Kanaalstraat. The drill bit is already suffering from a mild case of brewer’s droop.

The coffee shops offer a languid, back-lit ambiance, but the bars are plagued by insufferable decibel levels and an interesting combination of alcohol and dope—often not the best of mates. Youth, tattoos, and the usual quota of space cadets are in evidence.

I sipped a glass of tinto fino and suffered the recitations of a British exile who fancied his chances as a street poet, along the lines of his fellow Mancunian John Cooper Clarke. He’d left Manchester eight years before, found his way to Greece and Thailand, and eventually gravitated to Amsterdam, which seems to exert an inexorable gravitational pull on the misfits of the planet.

As he gulped his pint and dragged deeply on his joint, he explained he had a date, but the waitress behind the counter was so attractive he couldn’t bear to pull himself away.

So I did.

Argentinian steak houses hold a bizarre domination over Amsterdam’s culinary landscape—you don’t go to the Netherlands to sample Dutch food. An American told me he was from Iowa, and refused to believe I knew where it was. “Ok, name one state, just one, next to Iowa.” I got Indiana wrong on my first go, but they had to think about it, and then hit the jackpot with Nebraska.

Some years ago in the Caribbean the reverse happened: I told an American about Portugal and asked if he knew where it was. “Sure I do, it’s right next to Israel!” Thankfully not, given the present state of the Mid-East.

Dam Square was in the grip of particular insanity, with a gigantic Ferris Wheel, a rotating beam with flip-cabins at each end, and an elevator tower—given the THC content of the consumables on offer, I imagine some of the merrymakers were in for a thoroughly bad trip.

Two minutes down from the Krasnapolsky you enter an entirely different world, where girls smile at men through plate glass windows. The attire is more conservative than a few decades back—only rarely is a boob in evidence. Of course the visitors to the zoo are mainly men, a good number reinforced by the aptly-named Dutch courage, but middle-aged couples promenade hand in hand down Kanaalstraat, as if in a digital-age stroll through the Bois de Boulogne.

The ladies fire censoring looks at the sex workers, while the men studiously look away. Fashions have changed, or is that window (un)dressing? The girls displayed their wares in a bikini, but many sported large plastic spectacles, in studious shades of black or brown—maybe there’s a general fetish for math teachers, or perhaps the trade is now sponsored by Eyemart.

My theory? The girls are really a collection of brainy-hotties, escaped from the innards of Dan Brown books. They’re on the run from the sexless Doctor Robert Langdon, a breathless hero who solves mysteries without ever eating, sleeping, or bonking.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.


October 17, 2015

Let’s imagine your country borders with a major conflict zone. As the conflict escalates, for instance over a period of four years, and turns into a full-fledged civil war, you are inevitably affected.

This happened to Portugal in the late 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, and to Sweden in the Second World War. It happens to any safe haven, even to the Canadian ambassador’s house in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis.

War brings death.

It also brings about an incredibly swift transformation in human beings. We return to all our primeval instincts of self-preservation. And also to ruthlessness, hatred, and its first cousin, cruelty.

Any crisis always strikes hardest at the poor, the disenfranchised—a military crisis always splits the community into two parts: those who can, leave. Those who can’t, stay. The proportions may vary depending on whether you are in a civil war, but the worst situation is when a nation becomes the focus for  a proxy war among other nations.

Such was the fate of Syria.

What began on March 15th 2011 as a manifestation of the Arab Spring has evolved into a major theater of war, largely a proxy war. Who are the players? The usual suspects of the Mid-East, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia. The United States.

And other factions, for instance Kurdish tribal interests, which have brought Turkey into the conflict. To understand Syria, we need to back up a little.

In an article entitled ‘Walk Like an Egyptian‘ which came out on January 30th 2011, I wrote:

With a soaring population, haring past the laboring tortoise of economic growth, and the facile appeal of radical Islam, this is not a regional issue, it will affect Europe in a very significant way.

Some of the dictators who tumbled like dominoes were supported by the United States: Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, classic cases of Roosevelt’s ‘our sonofabitch‘ syndrome. Others were pariahs, like Gaddafi, and got  trounced by everyone, or had more steadfast patrons.

Obama unfortunately moves in a world totally unsuited to the various sons of bitches that populate it, including the people in charge of Russia, the Mid-East, and vast tracts of the Far-East.

The U.S. president is too nice a man for the decisions he needs to make. Above all, to use the Mafia term, he is not a war president. Hillary Clinton will be no different—after all she didn’t resign her position as secretary of state because Obama was too dovish on her hawk-like policies.

But if a Republican gets into office, then the lay of the land (or is that the lie?) will change. This is why Putin knew it was time to anchor his forces to the Syrian conflict now, when Obama is hamstrung in Afghanistan, because there won’t be a Republican in the White House until 2017.

His best case scenario is there will be a Clinton in the White House, in which case it will be business as usual in the Kremlin.

The U.S. today relies on fracking and other sources for much of its oil, and although the Saudis are playing a money game with fossil fuel prices, it’s undeniable that the U.S. is far less active, or even preoccupied, with foreign policy.

Of course there is a military machine to oil, if you excuse the pun, and a massive arms industry that relies strongly on exports—wars are good for business.

But since we’re now in no man’s land between Canadian Thanksgiving and U.S. Thanksgiving, let’s reflect a little more on Turkey.

Turkey sits on the northern border of Putin’s new colony. I wonder which one he wants next? Lebanon, Jordan? I don’t think so—my bet is Northern Iraq.

The refugees from Syria, and from a decade of war in general, went south to Lebanon and Jordan, or North to Turkey. In Turkey’s case, there are well over one million Syrians, at the latest count.

Rather than contain them, Turkey has been letting them go, and the geography of the region makes it plain where they’re headed. North is the Black Sea, east the former Soviet republics.

Never has the saying ‘Go West, Young Man’ rung truer.

The most astonishing development is the notion that Turkey can dam this tidal wave by becoming a member of the European Union. I nail my colors to the mast on this one—I’m against the expansion of the EU to include Turkey.

Historically, the political line of Europe goes through the Balkans, which explains why that area, like an ocean front, is an region of great turbulence. Cyprus is perhaps the last enclave to the east that can claim to be Europe, and even there Turkey has made it plain that it will not relinquish one side of the island.

To add Turkey to Europe in exchange for containing refugees is one more stupidity in the chronology of obtuse politics of the past few years. The ‘strong man’ policy in the Near East and Mid-East, propped up by Western governments, has for many decades been the only way to prevent wars, to stop the descent of vast regions of the world into total chaos.

The direct consequence of that change in policy has been mayhem everywhere: tragedy in the nations where conflict exists, and for Europe, a tide of refugees.

But the word tide is ill-employed, for a tide is both neap and spring, and most importantly it is flood and ebb.

There is no compelling case for Turkey to become part of the Union, and certainly not for refugee containment—why containment within the EU would be better than outside it is beyond me.

Now everyone knows about Izmir and Kos, and the rubber boats. But this is not happening because someone suddenly bought a map—this is strictly political, a change of foreign policy by Turkey to open the flood valve to Germany. And the ‘reward’ for that is EU membership—by pressuring one of the key opponents of Turkish adhesion, and the most powerful country in the Union.

A cynical observer might be excused for thinking Germany and Austria’s open door policy paves the way for Turkish accession. A perplexed one might wonder why.

One thing is certain.

The refugees will keep coming. If not through Turkey, then back through Lampedusa. This tide will not ebb.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.


Mama Africa

October 10, 2015

As a rule I stay away from local news, in particular the trite that fills TV news in the United States, or Britain, or Portugal. The Mrs. Jones’ cat stories are opium in a world stuffed with madmen, and the first rule of fighting is to know the enemy.

So, despite the depressive nature of the whole affair, it’s important to be aware that Russia is launching cruise missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea, and that German neo-nazis are marching in Dresden, calling Merkel Mother Terrorista—in German, Teresa and terrorist sound remarkably alike.

By the time I’m done with the Washington Post, El Pais, The Guardian, and the South China Morning Post, I have a fair perspective of how the world is turning.

I dip into Haaretz for the headlines, or The Times of India. Some papers let you read their articles, some only the titles—I don’t care. There’s enough to work on, and if you buy a newspaper you feel guilty if you don’t read it from end to end.

And I stray into Africa, where the local news stories regularly reveal the tragedy of everyday life. In fact, in African papers, the local news is often more shocking to me than events in the wider world.

The Ugandan Observer is one of my regular sources, and this week led me to the discovery of the boda-boda. My spellchecker doesn’t know what it is, but the internet did.

This seems to be too upmarket for my definition of boda-boda, but it's an exercise to count the passengers.

This is too upmarket for my definition of boda-boda; it looks more like multi-pillion, but I enjoyed counting the passengers.

It can be either a bike or a driver, but it always involves a two-wheeled vehicle—the genuine article is a bicycle, modified to hold a flat wooden seat at the rear—often a woman and child will ride on it sidesaddle.

The name itself fascinates me: it stems from the word border, because the bikes were originally used to ferry passengers across the Kenya-Uganda border at Busia, where no-man’s land is half a mile wide.

Why bikes? To avoid all the red tape of dealing with frontier crossings of motorized vehicles. Having done a few land crossings in Africa, including the border between South Africa and Mozambique, I can assure you I see the point.

So boda-boda, a mainstay of modern Ugandan travel. But what caught my attention was the story of a woman, a schoolteacher in Arua district.

This lady is called Milika Ederu, and teaches at the Ringili primary school. The unusual aspect of Ms. Ederu’s professional situation is that she sleeps in the staff room.

This is compounded by the fact that the staff room possesses neither a bathroom nor a latrine. Neither does it have a kitchen.  The teacher explains she is forced to share with the pupils, a practice she finds most uncomfortable.

Ringili primary school, in the Arua district of Uganda.

Ringili primary school, in the Arua district of Uganda. The words a rua mean the street in Portuguese, an inescapable irony.

The head teacher explains that the school was built fifty-seven years ago, and when the block developed cracks the parents were ‘forced to remove its roof.’ As if that isn’t astounding enough, the school has remained roofless since—on the one hand that prevents a terrible accident, on the other there is abundant rain in Uganda.

I wanted to tell you just how much it rains in Arua, but the first promising link I clicked ( returns a stark message: Account suspended.

That got me thinking, because I suspected .go would be the prefix for government. I was right, and soon I found the Uganda Revenue Authority was also offline. Thankfully, the government site itself (State House) is up and running, and if the pictures are anything to go by, the roof looks sound.

Arua district gets an average 1250 mm of rain per year, or about fifty inches—London gets only half that, New York about eighty percent (two-thirds as snow).

So, yes, the kids get wet. Apparently they also get pregnant. Presumably not the ones in primary school, but the head teacher explains she receives three to four cases of early (sic) pregnancies every year for girls aged 13 to 14.

I can’t help recalling my question to novelist Jade Lee when I was promoting The India Road. I asked her to comment on the fact that much of the sex in the periods depicted in these novels (certainly including the Tudors) involved very young girls, whereas the novels bumped them up to matronly age. She shrugged it off and explained she had teenage girls of her own.

So do the good people of Arua district. In the words of the headmistress:

“A girl can go to dance on a Friday and remains with the ‘boyfriend’ until Monday,” she says. “When we call for meetings, parents say they are defeated. Maybe those video halls should be removed.”

Now that sounds downright bizarre. Dance? Video halls?  Visions engulfed me of the amusement arcades of the 1970s and 80s, pool tables and large video game machines with pedals and steering wheels.

Turns out video halls are shacks (but the one I saw had a roof) where movies are shown. One self-righteous Dutch guy from the UIFF says “An important youth culture is developing inside the video halls. That should be stimulated, and just added with some more depth to the films they watch.”

I’m guessing there’s already enough stimulation, don’t get me started on depth.

It was toward the end of the article that I read “Most residents were concerned that some of the teachers were too poor and had resorted to riding boda bodas to survive instead of teaching.”

Having wondered about the dances, pregnancies, and video halls, I now had boda-boda in my sights. Who were these bodacious creatures, and why were the teachers riding them?

Ederu’s prospective solution is the renovation of a grass-thatched hut, a hundred yards from the school. This home improvement project awaits PTA funding, and everyone knows who funds PTA.

I suppose the naive question from the West would be how much does Ederu get paid—clearly not enough  to rent a room.

“Staff houses and desks for pupils have become a luxury in our district,” said Wilfred Saka, the district social services chairperson. But the state house website promotes direct foreign investment into luxury resorts on Lake Victoria, among many other top of the line projects for air travel, mining, and agribusiness.

Poor Mama Africa.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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