Tag Archives: Diary

The Tale of Two September 11s

The Free Word Centre has a couple of big bookcases at one end of its central space.  Last week, I was surprised to discover on the shelves a copy of the The Blog Digest 2007, which was edited by Justin Mckeating and features a couple of contributions by me.  It naturally drags to the surface those old thoughts about the nature of blogging and why someone does it.  Back in 2006, when we put together that book, ‘meta-blogging’ (i.e. philosophising about the nature of this new activity) was all the rage.  Nowadays? Not-so-much.   Back then, it felt as of blogging was its own thing, a distinct community with its own round-up.  Now, it is simply another way to take part in a global conversation.  Long-form Twitter.  Before, bloggers and journalists were considered different creatures.  Now, blogging is how journalists do their thing, and it’s never clear whether any given piece you might read online has also made its way into the printed edition of the paper or magazine.

I know why I started blogging: catharsis.  I was spending far too much of 2005 writing angry letters to newspapers, and submitting contributions to the BBC Have Your Say website.  The comments I made were on pretty much the same topics as the things I discuss on this blog even now: free expression, human rights, belief, foreign policy, the nature of democracy, gay rights, and the evolving internet technology.  It was a natural wish to be able publish without waiting for some editorial intern to deem my contribution as relevant!

I think my motivation for maintaining the blog has subtly changed since I began, seven years ago this month.  There is much less anger and frustration, less need to blurt out a rebuttal of some hideous, shoddy political argument. There are two reasons for this change.  The first is that politics has moved on: the insidious, divisive ideology pushed by President George W. Bush (and shockingly enabled by Tony Blair) has thankfully waned.  The second is that now I actually work in human rights campaigning, well within the London political ‘mix’ and with a tangible route to make a difference on the issues I care about.  The personal blog is no longer the only way I participate in the political process.  As a result, it becomes less urgent.

I am grateful that anyone stops by to read these pages, as I know many of my friends and a few strangers sometimes do.  But I know I have no right to expect anyone to continue reading.  With that in mind, I perceive a tendency to write as if I am
taking notes, diarising (weblogging in other words) as a personal project.  I write as much for the future me as for the present you, the present them.  I often see the writing as a sort of insurance for the future, a partial brain-backup or a resource that an aged, dementia-addled version of myself can use to pass the time when I no longer go outside.

That, and a record for the progeny.  For the past few years, as I’ve mellowed, I have often thought of myself as writing for hypothetical children!  I am grateful to those among my own ancestors who wrote something for me, and it is not unreasonable to expect my descendants to read through the blog!  I hope they get a feel for this point in human history, and a sense of my ideals.   And if I seek to persuade anyone with my writing, it is them.

In a certain sense, therefore, this blog can be seen as shaped by two events, which took place exactly a decade apart.  The first is the infamous terror attack of September 11th 2001, which was the spark that ignited two wars and provoked the policies that so angered me.

The second event was the birth of my daughter on 11th September 2011 – one year ago today.  She cannot read yet, but now, at last, I know who I am writing for.

'Crossroads' Published! Buy Now for the Kindle


I am delighted to announce that Crossroads has today been published, and is available to purchase for the Kindle in the Amazon store.

Crossroads, you will recall, is a short anthology of new short stories, including a contribution from myself, entitled ‘(0,0)’. The plot involves a chance encounter, a missed opportunity, and some maths.

The other stories are ‘Prignitz Was An Innocent’ by Christian Fox, a dark, dark retelling of the Pied Piper færy tale; ‘Georgia’ by Jenni Hill, about a demon having a frustrating time at work (which made me smile); and ‘The Golds’ by Ian Whates, a tight fable about music and sacrifice. The noir cover illustration of Robert Johnson is by Vincent Sammy. ‘Tis an impressive group and I’m proud to make my literary debut on those (electronic) pages.

The publishers are Jurassic London, who are making a habit of publishing fantastic collections of genre fiction. Their recent Stories of the Smoke collection was timed to co-incide with the Dickens bicentenary and included a royalty donation to English PEN (which is how I came to meet them). Crossroads is actually a companion volume to the limited edition Lost Souls, a collection of ‘lost’ stories from writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Benjamin Disraeli, John Galsworthy and Amelia Edwards.

Buy Buy Buy! And/or: Come to the launch event tonight.

Crossroads cover

Crossroads (cover) by Vincent Sammy

Crowds at the Notting Hill Carnival

The Colour of the Notting Hill Carnival

I was at the Notting Hill Carnival over the Bank Holiday weekend. I took a few photos and uploaded them to Flickr.

Notting Hill Carnival

Two revellers ask for directions from a helpful copper, Notting Hill Carnival, London, 27 August 2012. Photo by yrstrly

While I was there I posted a tweet complaining about the boarded up shops. I attributed the boards to the fact that there have been disturbances and vandalism in previous years. However, one source who grew up in the area tells me that there have always been boarded up shops, mainly to stop people relieving themselves in shop doorways, rather than for fear of broken windows.

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Thoughts on the Olympics I: Diversity and Multiculturalism

I had meant to write a post about the Olympics opening ceremony, and what it says about Britain. That was two weeks ago. During which time, we have had pretty much the entire Olympics, and seen some fantastic performances from British athletes. There has been a predictable debate all over the media, blogs, and Twitter, about the nature of Britishness and multiculturalism. Although such subjects are a staple of this blog, I do rather feel as if most of the things I believe have been said by others elsewhere! I consider this to be a good thing – it means there is a growing consensus in favour of the kind of diversity I believe in.

There is still work to be done however. In particular, I am not sure how in-depth the conversation about to Multiculturalism has been. On super Saturday, when Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all won gold medals, there was a lot of *literally* skin-deep chat. “Ennis is mixed race. Rutherford is ginger. Farah is black. Look at our diversity! Up yours, BNP!” This feels shallow. What I did not see much of, was a discussion of how their diverse backgrounds had contributed to the success of the athletes. At its best, celebrating multiculturalism is not just about identifying difference. It is about showing how those different traits, faiths, and cultural practices, all contribute to ‘make the man’ (or woman). It is not enough to simply point out that Farah is a Muslim; one has to ask whether his faith has contributed to his astonishing success. And if it has – how? Likewise with Greg Rutherford’s upbringing, or Jessica Ennis experience.
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Tia Sharp Missing Poster

The Fate of My Namesakes

It’s Wednesday evening and we’re on the Victoria Line. A young man strums a guitar and sings while his friend harmonises. Their refrain is “You mean the world to me” and I don’t know whether that’s a popular song in the charts that I have never heard, or of it is their own composition. I hope the latter.

The train pulls into Stockwell Station, where Jean Charles De Menezes was shot dead by CO5 officers. It is also the interchange with the Northern Line, so we get up to leave.

In quick succession, two images drift into my eye-line and draw my attention for the same reason. First, there is a photograph in the Evening Standard of an athlete in Team GB colours, her surname pinned to her chest. It is Lynsey Sharp, the Scot who has qualified for the final of the 800 metres.

Lynsey Sharp at Loindon 2012

Lynsey Sharp at Loindon 2012, after qualifying for the 800 metre final.

Then, as I step off the train and walk towards the tunnel to the other platforms, I double-take at a crude A4 photocopy taped to the tiles. It announces the disappearance of 12 year old Tia Sharp. She is a Londoner and has been missing for six days, but these facts have not penetrated my consciousness until now.
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The Irrationality of EuroMillions

Away from the Olympics, there has been a massive rush for lottery tickets ahead of tonight’s £105 Million Euromillions Draw.

Its not really new or interesting to point out how irrational playing the lottery is.  Playing the lottery is often called “a tax on stupid people”.  It is not only irrational in the sense that people pin their hopes on something extremely unlikely to happen, but also economically irrational.  The ‘expected return’ (a function of the probability and the amount invested) is much less than other types of gambling too.  The odds of winning the UK lottery jackpot are 13,913,816 to one, which suggests thatyou should win at least £13,913,816 on a £1 stake, should your six numbers come up.  Instead, the lottery jackpots are usually much lower (typically about £2 million).  That’s like getting only £15 winnings after putting a quid on a 100/1 horse at the Grand National!

However, playing the UK lottery does become economically rational if the rollover jackpot goes over £14 million, because then you’re actually taking a bet with a better return than the odds would suggest.  This happened frequently in the past, though less so in recent years as the popularity of the Lotto decreases.

There’s no such benefit with EuroMillions however. The odds are one in 95,344,200, and the price of a ticket is £2 in the UK.  That means it is only economically rational to play EuroMillions when the jackpot is £190 million or more.  This has not happened yet.  the biggest win so far was £161 million. In fact, rules for that lottery cap the jackpot at €185 million.

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Cycling to Work on the Eve of the Games

The smug designer with the skinny t-shirt and a fixed gear bike.
The mother in blue track suit with an empty child seat fixed to the pannier.
The ill-prepared lad in the baggy jeans on mountain bike with the seat set way too low.
The hobbyist with orange glasses and Lycra that matches his titanium frame.
The dreadlocked courier with a thick chain wrapped around his chest.
The woman with frayed ginger hair crawling out of her helmet.
The two Japanese tourists, inexplicably on Boris Bikes (miles from a docking station, surely?)

Could I discern
The same eager twitching as the red lights wane,
The same grit of the teeth as clear road opens up ahead
The same extra power on the pedals as the bike overtakes a bus
The same glance over the shoulders, to check the gap between the person behind,
The same confident gait of the one who imagines himself to be wearing a yellow jersey,
As I perceived in myself?

At the four way pedestrian crossing at Ludgate Hill,
When the red lights rudely put the brakes on our makeshift peloton,
Did I perceive in the tall old man in a linen suit,
In the girl in a flowing white dress and flat sandals
In the woman in the business skirt and trainers,
In the sweaty man in shorts, now carrying his fold up bicycle,
A quicker step
A longer stride
A firmer tread
As if the noise that heralded the green man
Was no longer a high-pitched beep
But a starters’ gun?

Disestablishmentarianism

Let’s have a think about this report by the Church of England, warning that gay marriage will ruin its ability to perform marriage.

First, the church says that marriage has/will become a “hollowed out” shell of its former glory. Personally, I do not think that allowing people who love each other to have access to the stability and security that marriage brings is a “hollowing out”. As I have argued before, in refusing to countenance gay marriage, religions forget their core mission. Instead of fostering community, inclusion and family stability as they claim, they instead promote ostracism, division and exclusion.

The Church also says that new proposals will mean that they will end up not performing any marriages. Campaigners dismiss this will actually happen, but I wonder whether principle says that it should. The conundrum arises because Churches are technically state institutions… And our modern principles of equality demand that everyone be allowed access to them. If priests are adamant that they will not marry some (gay) people, the only way to achieve that consistently is to not marry anyone in a Church.

The Church raise this point because they think the logic points to the absurdity of gay marriage. It does not. Instead, it points to the absurdity of an established Church. In this multi-faith era, how can any particular faith have the backing of the state? Issues of equality and conscience and tradition are bound to collide, with people compelled to take part in situations they would rather not, due to their personal faith. The answer is disestablishment. An unfettered Church of England would be free to persue its conscience into the same marginalised corner of society as the Catholic Church. Of course, that would mean renouncing the Bishop’s seats in the House of Lords, and presumably a lot of the power, property and prestige that comes with being Established. But I think it would be for the best.

After the Debate

While I certainly stand behind the broad message of my Oxford Union speech, it is only right to acknowledge that the subject of debate – the impact of social media on social activism – is a little more nuanced and complicated than my bolshy assertions would have you believe. It’s worth acknowledging some of the arguments in favour of the motion, and expanding on some of the issues I was only able to cruise by in my eight minutes at the despatch box.

First, I wrote down a phrase from Mark Pfeifle, where he described social media as enabling “the soft power of democracy”. I thought this was a persuasive point. My speech focused on social activism in the UK and the USA, where there is a long tradition of social activism, and therefore ‘reinventing’ such activism is a very tough proposition. By contrast, those countries plagued by dictatorship have a stunted tradition of social action, so any tool that enables any kind of activism might be seen as a ‘reinvention’.
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