Monday, February 22, 2010


This bullying story seems a bit fishy, doesn't it? First, Andrew Rawnsley publishes extracts from his new book; then the CEO of the National Bullying Helpline (presumably forgetting that crucial confidential clause) phones up her local radio station to say that her charity has received calls from bullied Downing Street staff; then the Government accuses the National Bullying Helpline of being a cover for the Tory Party (it's based two doors down from Tory HQ, features some waffle from David Cameron on the front-page of its website, and boasts two Tory patrons); then Anne Widdecombe resigns from its Board, along with two others (and possibly one more, herself a Tory Councillor).

Is that a rat I smell?

Possibly, for if you delve a little deeper into Christine Pratt's business affairs, it appears that the National Bullying Helpline is not as altrustic as it seems. As well as being the Chief Exec of the NBH, Christine Pratt is also the Chief Exec of a commercial outfit called HR & Diversity Management Ltd. The latter company was set up by Pratt to help businesses resolve personnel disputes, and they often achieve this by claiming that the worker who alleges that he or she is being bullied is, in fact, a vexatious complainant. Their website boasts that:

"At HR&DM we have designed a model which ascertains, very early on, whether an employee grievance is vexatious or not. This model also assists employers with their line of defence as it identifies where policies need reviewing and where training or diversity initiatives are required to ensure problems do not occur again."

An online bullying helpline exposed this conflict of interest here last year, but this is briefly how it works.

You are being bullied at work, and - at your wits' end - decide to phone up the National Bullying Helpline. The Helpline listens to your story and decides to take up your case. Quite reasonably, you believe that the charity will take up your case. But here's the catch - the charity does no actual casework. It leaves that to its for-profit sister-company HR & Diversity Management, who will investigate your case.

So you fill in and sign HR&DM's model letter, which confirms to your employer that you have been signed off sick with stress, as a result of the bullying you have experienced at work. You should take care to note that the letter invites your employer to contact HR&DM direct, in order to initiate the investigation.

And this should probably worry you, for HR&DM's website claims (quite wrongly, as it happens) that "during 2006 25% of cases found that the instigator, the alleged victim, was in fact, the bully," and "during 2006 32% of the complaints investigated by HR&DM were found to be vexatious." This hardly suggests that HR&DM are likely to advocate on your behalf, or be in any way independent.

Alternatively, if your employer does not agree to an independent investigation, HR&DM recommend that you employ them as a third-party negotiator, which again involves HR&DM contacting your employer.

For all I know, they may do sterling work! (for your employer, if not for you). But, yep, it sure does look fishy (and it seems others think so too)

Saturday, February 20, 2010


A mention at the end of Christgau's review of Contra has led me stumble upon a record called Electric Highlife: Sessions from the Bokoor Studios.

Spotify it if you can; it is truly sublime, especially the three tracks by Francis Kenya and the Riches Big Band. I can't find much reference to Kenya on the internet, but it seems remarkable that he produced music of such ambiguous joy during such a turbulent period of Ghanaian history, a time of military crackdowns and hyper-inflation under the rule of Jerry Rawlings.

The sound, recorded in John Collins's Bokoor Studios (still one of the biggest concerns in Ghanaian music) is of mediocre quality - the swoopingly imaginative bass lines come across like another layer of guitar, and Kenya's vocals (reminiscent of a very young Youssou N'Dour) are sometimes a little too bare. But I guess the lack of production values make the music more unmediated - the suspended melodies (where major keys sound sad, and minor keys sound inspirational) and heads-down traditional themes (elders worrying that the youth is going down the wrong path, warnings against gossips, old Liberian folktunes) become transcendental.

Other Ghanaian and Nigerian compilations lay guiltily in my playlists and favourites sections. They wait to be loved, hope to be my favourites, but are resigned to never being heard. The Nigeria 70 comp (on Afrostrut) came with all the sumptuous sleevenotes and big names (Tony Allen, Fela Kuti, Sir Victor Uwaifo) that makes such a package undeniable. But I've never got on with it at all. But the Bokoor CD is something different - much as I try to catch up on the year's releases so far, this is the one I keep coming back to.

Monday, February 15, 2010


A marvellous review by Steph of the Knife's "Colouring of Pigeons" over at the Samosa. As well as the suggestive way in which she describes the Andersson siblings' depiction of cross-generational evolution, I was struck by this "marriage of the cosmic and the domestic," and how birds are often used as a signifier for this marriage. From rather different ends of spectrum, Kate Bush and Olivier Messaien spring to mind - the bird seems to be the ultimate dialectical animal, seasonally migrating to far-off lands, but always returning to the seed-tray and the bird-bath.

Monday, February 08, 2010


Remember Strategic Hamlets? It was the policy whereby the US took Vietnamese citizens away from the Communist influence of their villages and relocated them to new villages where they could become new model citizens and resist the Vietcong.

It backfired in Vietnam, but now apparently it’s back in Afghanistan. As NATO plans an assault on a Taliban-controlled town in Helmand Province, tens of thousands of residents are being told to move out before the attack begins. Indeed, they don’t have much choice – leaflets handed out by NATO forces warning of the attack told people “to leave the area or be killed”.

The policy to win hearts and minds will fail in Afghanistan too, because hearts and minds have already been lost. Residents of Marjah are alienated from the war that goes on around them. “There are Taliban all over the place and foreign troops around Marjah,” one says. “So I was scared that we might get hurt.” “Everybody is worried that they’ll get caught in the middle when this operation starts,” says another. People are caught in the crossfire of a war between two sides which don’t represent them. During the last six months, nearly 100 civilians have been killed in US air strikes for every two so-called insurgents killed (the US claims to have killed 25,000 insurgents in total).

No serious survey of Afghan civilian casualties has been carried out since the summer of 2002, when it was estimated that 10,000 civilians had been killed. That was nine months into the fighting; one can only guess how many have been killed after eight and a half years of occupation. And this distinction between civilians and insurgents is a false one, at least for the occupying forces: since they don’t really know who is an insurgent and who is not, the whole Afghan population has become the enemy.

At the end of 2008, British forces managed to transport a turbine through 180km of road from Kandahar to the Kajaki dam in Helmand Province. It was hoped that this would triple electricity production, but almost immediately NATO admitted that it might never be used, since Taliban domination of the area meant they could not guarantee the delivery of a second turbine. The obsessive – and, in a sense, rather heroic – British mission had enabled the Taliban to bed down in many towns along the Helmand River – towns like Marjah, in fact.

As Adam Curtis has described in his excellent series of blog posts on Afghanistan, the Kajaki Dam project has a surreal and ill-fated history. It began soon after the Second World War, when King Zahir Shah was looking for ways to re-invest the profits of the burgeoning Afghan fur trade. He hired Morrison Knutsen (the engineers who had built the Hoover Dam) to build a hydroelectric dam in Helmand which would irrigate the region and make agricultural more profitable.

In 1952, with aid from the US, the Helmand Valley Authority was set up along the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority of the 1930s. Dams and canals were built, but they waterlogged the area and made the water cooler, which made the land unsuitable for viticulture and orchards. Helmand was forced to grow grain instead.

But the Afghan and US governments were undeterred. Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud oversaw the resettlement of Pashtun tribes into the area (the city of Lashkar Gah was built as a headquarters for the HVA in this period).

But the problems caused by the dam grew. Hard rock below the earth’s surface compounded the waterlogging, and when deep holes were bored into the earth to drain the water away, 10% of the land was removed from cultivation. When crop yields were found to be falling, Americans tried to revolutionise agriculture, which meant the Pashtun settlers had to be uprooted. They refused to go.

In 1969 there was a drought; the Helmand river and the new reservoir created by the dam dried up and wheat yields were the lowest in the world. The ensuing food crisis destabilised the king, and in 1973 Daoud ousted his cousin the King from power. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Helmand Valley Project ended, and the abandoned land was used to grow poppies.

In the 1990s, the Taliban built a hydroelectric plant to bring electricity to Kandahar. Finally, after 50 years in the making, the dam was completed. But in October 2001, the US bombed the dam’s powerhouse. Its future remains in question. The US, the USSR and various forms of Afghan government (including the Taliban) have, at different times, tried to use the dam as a way of regenerating or destroying Helmand Province, according to their own political goals. If the dam could speak, it would bear and ironic and despairing witness to Afghan politics over the last 60 years.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Here are links to two articles by Gary Younge and Richard Kim on the West's refusal to cancel Haiti's debt, a debt which is itself a result of historic demands and interventions by the West.

As Younge rightly says, "Haiti needs a bail out." But Western governments have been as slow in agreeing a just policy towards the people of Haiti as they were quick to bail out some of the biggest corporations and institutions in the world.

Without such justice, Haiti will be saddled with even more debt in years to come. The earthquake caused such destruction because its distant and recent history have left it in a uniquely vulnerable position.

Haiti became independent in 1804, after a victorious slave rebellion against colonial France. Within 20 years of independence, this infant republic had been forced to pay reparations to French slave-owners to compensate for loss of earnings (how does one begin to explain such repulsive hypocrisy?), and by the turn of the 20th century, it was spending 80% of its budget on repayments.

During the 20th century, both France and the US supported Papa Doc's dictatorship, and tolerated / sponsored the coup which deposed the democratically-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the middle of the last decade. In the 1990s, the IMF's structural adjustment programme reduced Haiti's economic independence by slashing its tariffs (Haiti used to be a net exporter of rice, but is now forced to import most of its rice from the US).

And this year, two days after the earthquake hit, the IMF loaned Haiti $100m, to be added to its existing $165m debt. The conditions of this loan are that Haiti increases its utility bills and freezes wages.

The IMF must write off Haiti's debts, and other lenders (the Inter-American Development bank) must be pressurised to follow suit. As Younge says, this "would not be an act of charity, but reimbursement and reparation. This is not a hand out but a hand back. In terms of Haiti's needs, it would be the beginning not the end. The country needs investment in its social and civic infrastructure so that it can shape its own future. It needs the kind of long-term interest from honest brokers that does not arrive for a coup or disaster and then leave when the cameras are gone." Otherwise this will be disaster capitalism of the sickest kind.


My dentist prescribed me a week's course of metronidazole last Monday to get rid of a gum infection. The packet instructed me not to drink alcohol until at least 48 hours after I had taken the last antibiotic. Nine consecutive days of not drinking - this is by far the longest dry spell of my adult life.

So what have I learned?

- that I can get to sleep quite easily at night without alcohol (which may seem a worrying point to make, but I wasn't at all sure that I could before)
- that I can dance without alcohol (in normal circumstances this may have proved impossible, but in the Silent Disco room on Friday night, I mashed-potatoed rather effectively to a hip-hop remix of Ray Charles's "I've got a woman")
- that abstinence does not make you sleep any better, or make you feel any fresher the next day (not that I feel too bad anyway)
- that I am hopelessly besotted with, if not quite dependent on, decent lager and red wine (though Bitburger is by far the best of the non-alcoholic beers, and not too bad a substitute)
- that Kaliber beer is a pox upon the world of soft beverages - it tastes like a malted milk biscuit dunked in a pint of stale bitter, liquidised, and whizzed through a soda-stream.

Anyway, it is with some relief that I uncorked a bottle of Fleurie this evening. It represents the end of an educative, cleansing and rather self-righteous era, but at the same time a rather regrettable one, and not one which I wish to repeat.