The Past and the Present Side By Side: An Interview with Peter Kimani

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s new online magazine dedicated to international writing. The latest issue is on the theme ‘Writing the Past’ and features my interview with the Kenyan novelist Peter Kimani, whose most recent book Dance of the Jakaranda was published by Telegram in March 2018.

Peter was a fascinating interviewee. We discussed the idiosyncratic structure of his novel, the challenges of ‘writing the other’, the need for Kenya to invest more in developing Swahili and Gikuyu literature, and the perilous state of freedom of expression in Kenya.

The past and the present side by side: a conversation with Peter Kimani

The Neimöllerisation of PREVENT

Families Against Fracking, July 2017

Oh dear. The Home Office have had to point out to the City of York council that anti-fracking groups are not ‘extremists’ and should not be funnelled into the PREVENT programme.

This is an excellent example of the ‘slippery slope’ or ‘boiling the frog’ problem that is so eloquently expressed in Pastor Martin Neimöller’s famous poem which begins ‘First they came for the socialists…’

Laws enacted for a narrow purpose are often deployed more widely in ways that are illiberal and a threat to our civil liberties. For example, the UK law that criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages sent online were enacted in 2003 (before the rise of social media) and intended to stop people sending hate mail via email or fax. But now it is being used to criminalise offensive comedians and harass outspoken student activists. Continue reading “The Neimöllerisation of PREVENT”

Someone called the police

In the United States, there is growing discussion on social media about the phenomenon of white people calling the police when they see a black person doing something entirely normal, or when they perceive a black person not showing enough ‘respect’.

When Yale student Lolade Siyonbola fell asleep in the library while writing an essay, someone called the police. When Tenessee real-estate developer inspected a house in Memphis, someone called the police. When Oakland resident Onsayo Abram set up a barbeque in the park, someone called the police.

Today I saw a variation on the theme: someone threatening to call the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when he became annoyed by two women working at a cafe speaking Spanish to each other.

Many people have made the point that this is linked to President Donald J. Trump’s unpleasant rhetoric about ethnic minorities (and indeed, everything). He has set a terrible example which incubates racists attitudes and brings out the worst in people. Others say that this kind of racism was always present in the society and it is only thanks to social media that we know these incidents are systemic, not isolated (it is almost a decade since professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr was arrested for breaking into his own home).

But these incidents also illustrate something about civil rights that I had not understood until I started working for English PEN, and which I don’t think many other people appreciate, which is that ambiguous laws can erode our civil liberties. Continue reading “Someone called the police”

Name-alikeys, Revisited

A long time ago I wrote a post about other people named Robert Sharp. This was prompted by the fact that some guy wearing my name was running for Congress in the USA.

Nothing provokes as much introspection as your own personal homonym achieving something.

For some reason I didn’t link to the pop culture reference point for this, Are You Dave Gorman?

Since then I have created a Twitter list of other Robert Sharps, which I tautologically consider to be a form of narcissistic worldliness. Astonishingly the list contains not one but two professional wrestlers.

I have actually met Rob Sharp and the world did not explode, and I have also chatted on social media with Robert Sharp.

However, a recent Google search threw up a few faces of which I had not been aware. Here they are, in alphabetical order—click on the photographs to read more about each of them.

Academia

Robert Sharp, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Manhattan College
Robert Sharp, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Manhattan College – New York, USA
Dr Robert Sharp, Instrument Scientist, ANU
Dr Robert Sharp, Instrument Scientist, ANU – Canberra, Australia
Robert Sharp, Math teacher and SF author, Nevada
Robert Sharp, Math teacher and SF author – Nevada, USA
Robert Sharp, Doane University
Robert Sharp, Community Directoy, Doane University – Nebraska, USA
Robert Sharp, CSN Financial Services
Robert Sharp, Financial Services at the College of Southern Nevada – Nevada, USA
Robert Sharp, Professor of Plant Physiology, University of Missouri - Columbia, Missouri, USA
Robert Sharp, Professor of Plant Physiology, University of Missouri – Columbia, Missouri, USA
Robert Sharp, Historian - Staffordshire, UK
Robert Sharp, Historian – Staffordshire, UK
Robert Sharp, the Art Institute of Chicago
Robert Sharp, the Art Institute of Chicago – Illinois, USA
Robert Sharp, has an unwavering passion for and dedication to the student body, which is why he wants to run for Student Body President
Robert Sharp, has an unwavering passion for and dedication to the student body, which is why he wants to run for Student Body President – Kansaa, USA

Lawyers

Robert D. Sharp, litigation attorney at Belin McCormick, Des Moines, IA, USA
Robert Sharp, litigation attorney at Belin McCormick – Des Moines, Iowa, USA
Robert Sharp, founder, Solicitors Agency Service, Leeds, UK
Robert Sharp, founder, Solicitors Agency Service – Leeds, UK

Architecture and Design

Robert Sharp, Architect, the New Urban Guild
Robert Sharp, Architect, the New Urban Guild – Arkansas, USA
Robert Sharp, CEO of Robert Sharp Associates
Robert Sharp, CEO of Robert Sharp Associates – Rapid City, South Dakota, USA

Medicine

Dr Robert Sharp
Dr Robert Sharp, Orthopedic Surgeon – Tamworth, Northern Territory, Austrailia

These guys…

Robert Sharp, convicted manufacturing a controlled substance and sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.

Yeah, I know, I’m white and in prison for selling crack, it’s a funny story, write me and I’ll tell you all about it. [link]

Robert B. Sharp, South Carolina.
Robert Sharp, charged in 2012 with sexually assaulting a minor. Charged in 2017 with two counts of attempted kidnapping – South Carolina, USA

There are dozens more mugshots of various men named Robert Sharp listed on Mugshots.com. Lots of drug possession, sex offenders and a couple of DUIs.

Military

Rear Admiral Robert D. Sharp, Office of Naval Intelligence
Rear Admiral Robert Sharp, Office of Naval Intelligence – Washington D.C., USA
Robert Sharp, Associate Professor, National Defence University
Robert Sharp, former British Army officer and Associate Professor, National Defence University – Washington D.C., USA
Robert Sharp, Chief Operations Officer at The Corpus Christi Army Depot - Corpus Christi, Texas, USA
Robert Sharp, Chief Operations Officer at The Corpus Christi Army Depot – Corpus Christi, Texas, USA

Financial Services

Robert Sharp, Valuation Consulting, London
Robert Sharp, Valuation Consulting – London, UK
Robert Sharp, CEO, Orca Pay Group
Robert Sharp, CEO, Orca Pay Group – Hertfordshire, UK

Business and Tech

Robert Sharp, Group Executive Virgin Australia Airlines - Australia
Robert Sharp, Group Executive Virgin Australia Airlines – Australia
Robert Sharp, co-founder, OUT Adventures
Robert Sharp, co-founder, OUT Adventures – Toronto, Canada

Interestingly, another Robert Sharp (the one who teaches at Manhattan College, above) had a photo taken at Machu Picchu in pretty much exactly the same spot.

Robert T. Sharp, Executive Vice President, Emerson
Robert Sharp, Executive Vice President, Emerson Electrical – St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Robert Sharp, Founder, LifeFlix - Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Robert Sharp, Founder, LifeFlix – Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Robert Sharp, winemaker - California, USA
Robert Sharp, winemaker – California, USA
Robert Sharp, Terminal Manager at Oak Harbour Freight Lines - Washington, USA
Robert Sharp, Terminal Manager at Oak Harbour Freight Lines – Washington, USA
Robert Sharp, Greenhouse Designer - Yukon, Canada
Robert Sharp, Greenhouse Designer – Yukon, Canada
Robert Sharp, Nissan Car Dealer - Tennessee, USA
Robert Sharp, Nissan Car Dealer – Tennessee, USA

Artists

Robert Sharp, musician
Robert Sharp, musician – Huddersfield, UK

Here’s one of Robert’s tracks, ‘Searching the Stars’.

Robert Sharp, Stained Glass Artist - Birmingham, Alabama
Robert Sharp, Stained Glass Artist – Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Robert Sharp, DJ and music producer
Robert Sharp, DJ and music producer – Ireland
Robert Sharp, DJ - Perth, Australia
Robert Sharp, DJ – Perth, Australia

Here’s a mix by Rob from 2011 entitled ‘One Nineteen’.

Robert Sharp, musician – Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Robert Sharp, Emmy award-winning Producer of MATH PARK - California, USA
Robert Sharp, Emmy award-winning Producer of MATH PARK – California, USA
Robert Sharp, Artist, Programmer, Graphic Designer, Photographer & Web Designer - Oregon, USA
Robert Sharp, Artist, Programmer, Graphic Designer, Photographer & Web Designer – Oregon, USA

Technicians

Robert Sharp, Technician at Republic Heating and Air Conditioning Inc, Dallas, Texas, USA
Robert Sharp, Technician at Republic Heating and Air Conditioning Inc, Dallas, Texas, USA
Robert Sharp, Robert Sharp Repair Work, Mississippi, USA
Robert Sharp, Robert Sharp Repair Work, Mississippi, USA

There are a few guys who only showed up on LinkedIn.

Robert Sharp, Plant Controller at Rea Magnet Wire
 Customer Account Manager at VTL Group
Robert Sharp, Customer Account Manager at VTL Group – Wakefield, UK
Robert Sharp, Manager at Price Waterhouse consultants - Washington D.C., USA
Robert Sharp, Manager at Price Waterhouse consultants – Washington D.C., USA.

Pretty sure this is the same Robert Sharp who got married to Beth in July 2017.

Robert Sharp, Business Consultant, Texas, USA
Robert Sharp, Business Consultant, Texas, USA

The Barman

Robert Sharp, Barman and author
Robert Sharp, Barman and author

The Bridegroom

I don’t know anything about Robert Sharp, other than he lives in Texas, USA and got married to Witney in November 2017.

Witney Elliot and Robert Sharp
Witney Elliott and Robert Sharp – Texas, USA

And finally, this gentleman…

Robert Sharp, panhandler, Vancouver
Robert Sharp, panhandler – Vancouver, Canada

This list operates on strict living Name-alike criteria. No Robins. No ‘e’ or ‘s’ on the end of Sharp. No Roberts or Sharps as middle names. This means that we are spared the mugshots for Garret Robert Sharp, Theodore Robert Sharp and Robert Sharp Bone. But it also means that the beautiful abdominal muscles of Robert Sharpe, Male Model, cannot be featured. Furthermore, I only include living Robert Sharps in this list, so we miss out the many dozens of Robert Sharps listed on memorial and obituary websites, including First World War Seaman Robert Sharp Jnr, and the NASA rocket scientist Robert P. Sharp.

Continue reading “Name-alikeys, Revisited”

Yeah But The Other Side Started It

Mohammed Abed

Terrible, terrible scenes on the border between Gaza and Israel. The IDF have massacred 52 protesters.

Meanwhile, social media is full of people seeking to justify and excuse this violence. The main line being parroted seems to be that Hamas provoked the attacks, because dead Palestinians are politically useful.

There may be some within the Hamas leadership who think like that, but that does not excuse or mitigate the violence by Israel, a country that is supposed to be a democracy, that is supposed to respect human rights.

What we need to remember in these situations is that blame is not zero sum. It can be possible for Hamas to have malign motives in staging the protest and putting people in danger. That does not remove moral culpability from the Israeli soldiers who pulled the trigger; nor the Israeli politicians who endorse their actions; nor the American politicians who in turn protect those Israeli politicians from accountability. Continue reading “Yeah But The Other Side Started It”

I Told You So! When Media and Tech Companies Fail To Self-Regulate, Governments Step In

Following the revelations about the harvesting of personal data by Cambridge Analytica and the ongoing worries about abuse and threats on social media, the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Communications last week began a new inquiry entitled ‘Is It Time To Regulate The Internet?’. At the witness sessions so far, peers have opened by asking each expert to comment on whether they favour self-regulation, co-regulation, or state-regulation.

The instinct to regulate is not limited to the U.K. Late last year senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said:

You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it… Or we will.

With the reader’s indulgence, these developments remind me of a point I made a few years ago at ORGcon2013, when I was speaking on a panel alongside Facebook VP for Public Policy EMEA, Richard Allan:

If we as the liberal free speech advocates don’t come up with alternative ways of solving things like the brutal hate speech against women, the hideous environment for comments that we see online, then other people are going to fix it for us. And they’re going to fix it in a draconian, leglislative way. So if we want to stop that happening, we need to come up with alternative ways of making people be nicer!

An audio recording of these remarks is on SoundCloud.

Its clear that neither Facebook, nor anyone in the technically minded audience at ORGCon, managed to solve the problem I raised. And lo! The legislators have arrived.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire, Tallentyre and Hall –

Government Minister Sam Gyimah begins an op-ed in The Times today thus:

I wholly disapprove with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Voltaire’s famous words reflect my opinion on free speech. It is an essential part of a thriving democracy, a civil society and a fulfilling university experience.

Except Voltaire never wrote those words. They are a paraphrase, a summary, written by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote under the pen name Stephen G. Tallentyre.

The phrase appears in Friends of Voltaire and is in reference to Voltaire’s contemporary Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l’Espirit (On The Mind), which had been declared heretical and burned.

On The Mind became not the success of the season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that!I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now. (Pages 198-199)

According to Wikiquote, the misattribution to Voltaire happened in the June 1934 edition of Readers Digest. In repsonse, Hall was quoted in Saturday Review (11 May 1935), saying:

I did not mean to imply that Voltaire used these words verbatim and should be surprised if they are found in any of his works. They are rather a paraphrase of Voltaire’s words in the Essay on Tolerance — “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”

Review: THE ELECTION (ITV)

St John's Grove, Preston Road Estate

2nd May 2019

The chattering classes just love to compare the low turnouts at local and general elections, with the fact that people actually choose to pay money to vote for reality TV contestants. So it is surprising that the Television executives took so long to produce The Election.

It was doubly surprising that it was commercial ITV that gazumped the BBC in what should have been an open-goal commission for our public service broadcaster, and triply surprising that ITV, after being spectacularly dumped by Simon Cowell at the end of 2017, should have chosen to replace their flagship musical talent show with political programming.

We should be glad that they did so, because The Election has proved to be one of the best things on TV on this political cycle, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’ll still be talking about the show a decade from now… if it isn’t still on the air, a dozen series older. Continue reading “Review: THE ELECTION (ITV)”

The Millicent Fawcett Statue is for My Great-Grandmother

The Millicent Fawcett statue by Gillian Wearing has been unveiled in Parliament Square today. It is the first statue in the square to depict a woman.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett led the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). This was a distinct organisation from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Unlike the ‘Suffragettes’, Fawcett and the NUWSS eschewed militancy and violence, an approach which appealed to my great-grandmother, Marjory Ingle. Continue reading “The Millicent Fawcett Statue is for My Great-Grandmother”