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From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

Had I not read Emma Larkin’s wonderful Finding George Orwell in Burma in 2013, I wouldn’t have gone looking for further reading and found a list of the author’s recommended books about the country. That would have meant I missed out on Pascal Khoo Thwe’s remarkable, lyrical story of a life that begins in the jungles of Burma before – after a few dizzying turns – depositing him in Cambridge’s hallowed atmosphere.

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Despite making bold promises to myself after compiling last year’s reading list, it has taken me close to two months to finish reading this book. Partly a change in available time is to blame, but also because there were passages that defy speeding through, rewarding repeated consideration and a slower pace. Carl Honoré would love it.

That pace is set by the author’s beginnings in tribal lands where the seasons dominate and everything is in tune with the life of the natural world around it. Some nods to modernity have been made, along with the tribe’s enthusiastic conversion to Catholicism, but the older ways operate alongside the new without too much anguish. Surprisingly – although perhaps less so when you learn more of what followed – the days of the British are remembered fondly. Pascal Khoo Thwe’s grandmother was even brought to London to be displayed as one of the ‘giraffe necked women’ and returned from the visit having enjoyed the ‘moving stairs’ that they didn’t need to climb, but full of complaints about the cold.

‘The English are a very strange tribe,’ said Grandma Mu Tha. ‘They paid money just to look at us – they paid us for not working… They say “Hello,” “How are you” and “Goodbye” all the time to one another.’

It is an enjoyable existence, one where uncles are supermen, playing for the town’s football team is the highest honour and wasps are a delicacy. Apart from that last one, it isn’t too far from my own. The dead remain in close proximity to the living, as in other parts of Asia. Death is not something to fear, but more a move to the next stage of life. These words from a funeral which was a blend of Catholic and traditional rites,

Well done, my boy. Well done, Peter Yew, for you have made us proud. You have finished your hunting. Enjoy being with our ancestors for ever; enjoy the banquet with them. They await you, and we will join you when the time comes. Meanwhile tell our ancestors about us, tell them to help us, and to protect us from the evil powers. Ask them to make our land fertile, to bring good weather and rains for us, to make our women fertile. Go my son, go, back to our ancestors. May your journey be gentle and your soul as bright as the stars.

That was one of the particular passages of the book that I read more than once. What better words could be said at the end of a life cut short but one that was lived well.

These ways which have endured for so long are not immediately threatened by the changes in Burma’s power structures as the military dictatorship takes hold slowly. The author’s grandfather and then his father are allowed to retain some vestiges of their tribal authority and so it is perhaps not until he reaches university, in a Mandalay so far off that it feels like another land altogether, that he begins to be exposed to the sufferings of other parts of his country. As a student he is advised to play the game and not question too much:

Remember what your grandfather said about the earth’s being round at school and flat at home. He was a wise man and taught you what you need to know in Burma. It is the same in politics… They may be as ignorant as peasants – but they have the guns. Never, never argue with them.

But he finds it increasingly difficult to engage in the doublethink which is needed to thrive in Burma. Even the university’s buildings, dating from Colonial times, impress upon him that at one point this place of learning sought to encourage an opening of minds and curiosity about the world that his generation is being denied. He is not the only one and, in 1988, protests sweep the country, starting with students before pulling in monks and ordinary people. The disappearance of his girlfriend in sinister circumstances shocks him off the sidelines and in to a more outspoken role, before eventually – inevitably – he is forced to flee for the relative ‘safety’ of the Thai border and the rebel fighters attacking government troops there.

And here this tale might have ended, by stray bullet or landmine, were it not for a chance meeting a few years earlier in a Mandalay restaurant with a Cambridge academic and a scrawled note which somehow reaches him. This contact catapults Pascal Khoo Thwe around the world, away from family, friends and comrades, and into the same misty cold that his grandmother had found so hard to bear. It is a heck of a journey and the reader almost has to keep reminding herself that Thwe is only recounting his first couple of decades.

Learning English and studying for a literature degree are colossal feats in their own rights, becoming a writer who can tell such a captivating tale in so creative and descriptive a manner is another. Mosquitoes are like ‘flying grape-pips blushing with human blood,’ and when he heads into the mountainous jungle, scenes of ‘cool-season flowers, ranging from… varieties of orchid to small white and purple bush-flowers,’ are interrupted by burnt-out villages.

It was a countryside that the hand of war had several times touched.

From his tribal childhood, to gaining maturity during the uprisings before heading to Cambridge, Pascal Khoo Thwe has lived more than one life, none of which I had much experience of. It’s a testament to his faith in ‘freedom and love of life’ that he was able to survive and to record such events not in a flat recounting, but in a tale that lives and breathes with the vitality and character of its writer.

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To Russia With Love

John Maguire brings a message of love to thaw the most snow-covered of hearts…

When Cupid draws back his bow this year, I am firing the arrow right into the heart of Mother Russia. I am dedicating my Valentine message to Vladimir PUTIN.

I am not going to write a lyrical ballad of love.

I am not going to try to pen a rhyme crime of the roses are red style.

I am going to state plainly how deeply disturbed I am at the human rights abuses and discrimination against LGBT people in Russia.

I spent the entirety of the weekend in Paris, wandering, mulling over the whole controversy around Sochi 2014. Like a true flaneur, I was trying to assimilate what I want to say about the Winter Olympics. In particular the attitudes to individualism and sexuality that are as bitingly cold as the necessary elements for this sporting event.

John Grant sums it up in his emotive ballad Glacier.

Listening to the debates around the brutalities that are currently taking place fills me with a deep sadness. The gut reaction I used to feel when someone mentioned a queer in school, a shirt lifter, a queg, a fanny…… (fill in your own derogatory term). I knew what was coming next.

But I am not going to rant, I am not going to state the obvious. I welcome Putin’s Draconian philosophies, his take on the modern jungle. Like the leader of the BNP, another dinosaur of a man, Putin’s views only serve to make him look like a Les Patterson-esque figure, a crass, crude caricature, his words and actions serve to highlight idiocy. But I don’t know the Russian translation.

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A man who sadly I thought in these more enlightened times had become  extinct. Yet I am lucky to live in the United Kingdom, knowing other countries do not always have the luxury of free expression.

WISH YOU WERE NOT HERE

A is for Antigua, where its fifteen years.

B is for Barbados, lifetime for all the queers.

D is for Dominica, ten years or sectioned for life.

G is for Guyana, prison for those who choose not to take a wife.

J for Jamaica, hard labour there.

K for Kenya, fourteen years thrown away without care.

Mauritius just five, Morocco just three.

St Lucia and St Vincent, a decade is robbed from thee.

Seychelles and Solomon Islands, jail for fourteen.

Singapore two, being ever so lean.

Trinidad and Tobago, a quarter of a century to eradicate the disease.

United Arab Emirates, deportation or the death penalty for living the life you please.

Social Networking has often been criticised, but over Sochi, it has been used positively, to show support, broadcast outrage and create a digital community to generate positive messages to LGBT Russians. From the ‘How to ask for a Rainbow Flag in Russian’ tutorial, endorsed by Derren Brown, Stephen Fry, Paloma Faith, Rupert Everett and  Neil Gaiman, to the Canadian tongue in cheek response to Russia’s Anti-Gay laws.

What is normal anyway, how is it measured? We are all different and there is no such thing as normal, just the people you don’t know that well. The United Kingdom may well be drowning but the good thing about this country is its happy to let people be. Thank the Universe for freedom of expression and speech in the place that I call home.

The thing I do find extremely disturbing is what will happen once the world’s media turn their attention away from Russia.

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Progressive change is not going to suddenly occur. Yet small drops make the ocean. Let us not forget it has taken 25 years to get to where we are in Britain, so we need to support activists worldwide on their long journey to equality. What goes on between consenting adults should be left to consenting adults. It’s an often quoted cliché but it really doesn’t matter who you love. Ignorance is not bliss.

I think of Jack Nicholson as President Dale in the film Mars Attacks! (1996)

Why can’t we work out our differences? Why can’t we work things out? Little people, why can’t we all just get along?

So I send my message with a kiss, Happy Valentine’s Day, Comrade Putin!

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Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Monday 21 January was designated by someone as Orwell Day, in commemoration of the anniversary of the writer’s death. Penguin Books offered a generous discount off the ‘Classic’ editions of his works and various media outlets took the opportunity to highlight his journalism. Lib Com had one of the best examples, this essay on the myth of freedom of the press, as evidenced by the difficulties Orwell experienced in finding a publisher for Animal Farm. The New Statesman went one further and declared Orwell Week, prompting the Spectator to point out that the writer and the NS editors had not always seen eye-to-eye, quoting this from an Orwell Tribune column:

Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly turn to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.

As someone who has always preferred to mark Orwell’s birthday, I suggest ignoring all of this hoopla, especially as it seems a reasonable bet that he would have hated the idea of Orwell Day. Instead, pass some time with Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma, a mixture of travel, historical and political writing, which contains much to surprise and inform even the dedicated student of Orwell.

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Despite having spent over two years living in Asia, before reading this book I had to confess to ignorance of all but the broadest facts of Burma’s recent history. How the country journeyed from the colonial past depicted in Orwell’s Burmese Days to control by its straight-out-of-Nineteen Eighty-Four military junta via the betrayed revolution of Animal Farm is detailed here, not only with factual observations but also through the lives of Burmese people. On her travels through the cities and countryside – ostensibly researching locations that Orwell and his mother’s family lived in and visited – Larkin encounters former prisoners, booksellers, journalists, teachers, the remnants of the Anglo-Burmese population and many others determined to share their stories in spite of the dangers. On expressing her surprise at their vitality, one friend retorts:

What did you expect? That we would all be sitting around on the pavements crying?

That would certainly be one likely response to coping with Burmese levels of doublethink, elements of normality everywhere from the tea shops – ‘an integral part of life’ – to the love of books and reading for pleasure – mention that ‘books are sold… at the night-time book bazaar in Mandalay’ and my ears prick up. Yet those same tea shops are ‘treated by the regime as potential breeding grounds for anti-government activities’ and thus the happy hunting grounds of informers, while one writer tells her that they are:

free to write whatever we want. We’re just not free to have it published.

Visits to dilapidated colonial buildings, old Christian cemeteries and key locations in Orwell’s history carry the story along, including one to the Police Training School – still used to house policemen today – where the young Eric Blair was trained in the methods of surveillance and population control that the military continued so enthusiastically after the British left. As a foreign female tourist, Larkin attracts attention from Burma’s diligent security operatives wherever she goes. In this fascinating interview, she talks about the methods she uses to avoid attracting attention and to protect her sources. (She also selects her five favourite books about Burma if, like me, you are keen on further discovery.)

Larkin seemingly has her own version of doublethink, captivated by Burma’s beauty while despairing that the army’s control can ever be relaxed. It must be like visiting a good friend serving a life sentence in prison, as one interviewee describes the population as the 50 million hostages of the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi – released from house arrest since the publication of the book – and her National League for Democracy perhaps offer some hope. Yet, as she travels, Emma Larkin muses on Winston Smith’s words from Nineteen Eighty-Four,

Where does the past exist?

and their relevancy to Burma, where all mention of the huge uprisings which took place in 1988 and their suppression have been erased from official histories. Restoring the country and its people to ‘normality’ will be no easy task.

A quote from the New York Times on the back of my paperback edition of Finding George Orwell in Burma notes that the book

uses Burma to explain Orwell, and Orwell to explain the miseries of present-day Myanmar.

It is an excellent and engrossing read, informative yet not in a dry way, featuring characters who, although they must be heavily disguised, remain vital and lively companions. I found it to be an illuminating tour through a country which shaped Orwell, informing his most celebrated books and turning him from disaffected colonial policeman into a writer unafraid to denounce totalitarianism, wherever he found it.

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Top 5 doomed literary loves

Perhaps it isn’t in keeping with the spirit of the season, as everyone loves a happy ever after, but sometimes it has to be acknowledged that the really great literature lives elsewhere.  With that in mind, and with Valentine’s wishes to all readers, here are ten minutes hate’s favourite star-cross’d lovers…

1. Anna and Vronsky – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The fairytale prince (though really a Count) escapes his destiny to marry the sweet-as-sugar Princess Kitty and skips off with the more captivating Anna instead.  Russian society at the time taking its cues from Paris, they might have been forgiven for carrying on behind her husband’s back.  Yet it is when the pair decide they can’t breathe without the other in the room and decide to throw career (him), family (her) and sanity (both) on the bonfires of love and lust that all hell really breaks loose.

Anna watching her lover fall from his horse mid-race and having to contend with his possible death under the suspicious eye of her husband is one of the finest scenes in the book, or possibly ever written.  And while the parallel story of Kitty and new love Konstantin provides a more realistic portrait of the early years of a marriage as well as acting as counterpoint, it is the raging, ultimately destructive, passions between Anna and Vronsky that linger long after reading.

2. Helene and Jean – The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir

Few things are more tragic than the discovery of crucial knowledge too late to do anything useful with it.  Witness reluctant hero Jean Blomart’s night of remorse and reflection as he only realises how deeply he cares for on-off girlfriend Helene after she has taken a bullet helping her ex escape from the Nazis.

The long vigil allows him the chance to reflect on the choices he has made in his life, politics and behaviour towards Helene – while wrestling with the decision over whether to send others out on a similarly dangerous mission – all in a suitably existential manner, of course.  But the philosophy never detracts from what is a cracking tale of betrayal, deceit, love, and ultimately, death.

3. Jake and Anna and Hugo and Sadie – Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Perhaps not since A Midsummer Night’s Dream have the forces of love got it so spectacularly wrong, with emotions in Murdoch’s first novel entangling to such a degree that no-one seems likely to get what (or who) they actually want.  Perfectly capturing the often comic choices of still-young-but-old-enough-to-know-better hero Jake Donaghue as he attempts to sort his chaotic life out enough to get the money, the acclaim and – of course – the girl he deserves.

His continuing mis-steps on that path to contentment, made due to his unvarying misconceptions of his world, are handled with such a light touch that it is impossible not to sympathise, even while desiring to give him a good shake!  A scene where he trails Anna through Paris, seeing her without her ever realising he is there, is beautiful in its longing and sense of loss.  This is another philosophical novel which never betrays the humanity of its central characters.  The inadequacies of language in conveying our perspectives – the ‘net’ of words we are all caught in – will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to tell someone they love exactly how it is and how it’s going to be.

4. Robert and Maria – For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The whispered conversations, while curled in his sleeping bag, their hopes for their life together, the brutal intrusion of their final goodbye.  It is a short yet grand passion, full of idealism and beauty, despite – or perhaps due to – the death and horror that surrounds them.  The earth even moves.

Yet, like the Republic they are fighting for, it is not destined to last.  As with The Blood of Others, Fascist bullets ultimately prove too strong for even this perfect love to overcome.

5. Winston and Julia – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

What else could it be?

Boy meets girl, boy hates girl, boy realises that is because he wants girl really.  Boy gets girl.  Boy convinces girl to join him in overthrowing a ruthless dictatorship.

Fails.

Looking back over my choices I realise that perhaps there is a common theme, that love can’t survive in a world bedevilled with totalitarian regimes, Fascist atrocities and the stern disapproval of a rigid society.  Those structures will always be incompatible with such deep feelings because, as noted by Jonathan Carroll, in his excellent tale of un-doomed love, White Apples:

…real love is always chaotic. You lose control; you lose perspective. You lose the ability to protect yourself. The greater the love, the greater the chaos. It’s a given and that’s the secret.

The idea of love as anarchy works better for me than all the diamonds and flowers and chocolates paraded at this time of year.  Perhaps Saint Valentine, killed for his opposition to the Roman Emperor, would approve.

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Tyrants destroy their own freedom

Seeking to rebalance the world and make the major changes needed to bring about financial justice are laudable aims, but rarely achieved easily.  Those ‘doing quite nicely, thank you’ out of the current system can hardly be expected to hand over the reins of power and, more crucially, the cash, without putting up a fight.  Meanwhile those involved in the Occupy protests are discovering that the police forces of the world have amassed some astounding toys to use against people armed with nothing more threatening than placards and a belief in a brighter future.

This has led to some shocking, but perhaps not surprising, incidents at the sites of protests.  In the States, University of California students were on the end of some particularly vicious police actions.   As Conor Friedersdorf writes:

The U.C. police officers are dressed in riot gear. They’re given guns, batons, body armor, face shields, and spray canisters of pepper spray. And they’re sent out in force. If they were in a video game they’d be ready to face off against some bad-ass foe with machine guns and assault rifles. We’re used to seeing officers like that in pitched battles on the street, or about to rush into a house filled with drug dealers. These guys are facing teenagers blocking a sidewalk.

The riot gear itself demands a significant response, whether the situation warrants one or not.  And if the pictures being sent from phones to generate a howl of outrage also convince a few would-be protesters that demonstrating isn’t worth getting a plastic bullet in the head for, then the actions have succeeded, according to Glenn Greenwald:

If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed… many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power.

Perhaps with a similar motivation, UK protesters have been caught up in protracted legal battles following arrests.  The case against the ‘Fortnum and Mason 145′ took a year to rule that members of UK Uncut protesting against tax-dodging were guilty of intimidation – for outrages including a game of volleyball – and to fine them £1,000 each towards the cost of a prosecution which can only have run at a loss.

Similarly, UK Uncut protesters in Brighton waited months to learn that they were to be acquitted of criminal damage for gluing themselves to the windows of tax avoiders Top Shop, although five of the group were convicted of recklessly causing criminal damage for knocking over some mannequins.  For such temerity they were fined £200 each, after a two-week trial the costs of which will have run into thousands.  In such trying financial circumstances as the UK finds itself, spending such sums can only be justified for the message it sends to others thinking about involving themselves in dissent.

The title of this post is taken from ‘Killing an Elephant’ by George Orwell, quoted in the Atlantic article above, in which he notes that all this weaponry and repression creates a prison as much for those wielding the power as those being crushed by it:

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

We all have to live in the same society, after all, and even if you have oodles of money in your own bank account, it can only do so much to insulate you from the suffering of your neighbour.  When even the mega-rich can see that things are broken, how long can change be delayed?  As Matt Taibbi observes:

…the powers that be in this country are lost. They’ve been going down this road for years now, and they no longer stand for anything.

All that tricked-up military gear, with that corny, faux-menacing, over-the-top Spaceballs stormtrooper look that police everywhere seem to favor more and more – all of this is symbolic of the increasingly total lack of ideas behind all that force.

In that case, every baton charge, pepper-spraying and trumped-up arrest brings us closer to the moment when we realise that to live as if money is more important than people, putting our faith in the markets and failing to provide for the many so that the few can live gilded lives behind gated community walls, is beyond stupid.  Those taking such treatment from the police and standing firm are to be applauded and supported in whatever way possible, as for now, they are all that stands between us and what Hunter S. Thompson knew:

In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together:

Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely…

If these protests have ‘them’ so riled, they must be doing something right.  How to turn the anger on both sides into a brighter future for the many will be the next, greater challenge.

Artwork by Barney Meeks

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On repeat

Perhaps this should come as little surprise.  A new study has discovered that the popularity of far-right groups is on the rise across Europe, even in the parts previously considered too enlightened to go in for that sort of thing, such as Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

Of particular concern is that the responses were gathered in July and August, so before Europe’s financial position performed an even more graceless nose-dive.  As the situation worsens, these parties are likely to increase in attractiveness and should – according to the study – experience little difficulty in translating their online support into ballots.

In evaluating possible responses to this news, perhaps we are in a way lucky.  We have a wealth of historical information and experience to call on and can have no doubts over the results of appeasing fascists.  Jamie Bartlett of the Demos think-tank who carried out the study, is right to say:

Politicians across the continent need to sit up, listen and respond.

But the response of non-politicians will be of greater importance.  Sitting back and letting fascism rise unchecked while we assume someone else will take care of it ends in a place no-one should be keen to revisit.  So the question must be, what can be done?

Knowing the enemy is essential.  While a lot about them remains the same as the 1930s, today’s fascists have shifted their attention from International Jewry to Islam, as well as tweaking their message for the new era.  Expert Matthew Goodwin from Nottingham University, quoted in The Guardian’s story, notes that:

What some parties are trying to do is frame opposition to immigration in a way that is acceptable to large numbers of people. Voters now are turned off by crude, blatant racism – we know that from a series of surveys and polls.

[They are] saying to voters: it’s not racist to oppose these groups if you’re doing it from the point of view of defending your domestic traditions.

Yet underneath this seemingly ‘acceptable’ message lies a well-established truth.  Fascism has never been solely a racist agenda.  For fascists, racism, xenophobia and nationalism are tools, they are not of themselves the final aim.  In an essential essay on the ‘Property is Theft’ website, Phil Dickens quotes militant anti-fascists Antifa:

The reason fascist groups tend to attack ethnic minorities and immigrants in this way are because they want to divide the working class. By sowing the seeds of division, fragmentation and suspicion in working class communities they undermine notions of solidarity and cooperation thus strengthening the status quo and perpetuating existing inequalities in society.

And so it naturally follows that the English Defence League in Liverpool have recently made:

…an open declaration of war against organised workers willing to stand up for their interests

by attacking workers protesting against job cuts.  When fascists lay claim to addressing the concerns of a working class they accuse other political parties of abandoning, this real agenda must always be thrown back at them.  They pay lip-service to worries over issues like housing, welfare and jobs, but their economic and social policies show that they remain a party of the bosses, not the workers.

It is down to all of us who love freedom and hate bigotry to tackle fascism in all its forms.  Whether it is that friend you haven’t seen for years posting a Facebook status about ‘them’ stealing ‘our’ jobs, or the EDL planning a march through your town, this is the time to stand up for what you know to be right.  Their propaganda must be countered and their shows of strength combatted, until they get the message:

They shall not pass.

Picture borrowed from here.

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Road to nowhere

For all of those readers who aren’t students of the 1930s – and why wouldn’t you be, given that we seem to be hell-bent on recreating it? – all I can say is, well.

Be warned, the last time foreign creditors tried to circumvent the democratic institutions of a sovereign nation in order to impose ever-increasing deprivation on its working and middle-class population, via a series of coalition governments lacking clear mandates to do so, it did not end well.

And that’s putting it mildly.

Picture borrowed from here, also well worth a read.

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