TB continued…

Last week I was in Uganda, I travelled to meet some of the poorest communities in and around Kampala, to speak with parents and children who have been affected by Tuberculosis, and often HIV as well.

I met kids as young as two, who are being treated for both diseases.

These were children of families of all sizes, including single parents – widows and widowers to both diseases. I asked about their lives, and they told me. Of their struggles and of their experiences.

Two Ugandan children in Wakiso districtI could write that I have been humbled or inspired by the people I met, but that is not quite the case, and these people don’t exist as instruments of my self-realisation.

And anyway, we all know the world is cruel. That most people in it are poor. We all know that children are dying for lack of medication, lack of education, lack of care. I was just put temporarily in a position where I couldn’t let it slip from my mind – where instead I was unremittingly face to face with these truths.

In Kampala, the traffic is thick and constant. Vehicles flow slowly through the city in endless lines of thick fumes and noise. By the side of the road there are makeshift shops constructed, it is common to see ones that sell coffins. Of all sizes. From adult right down to newborn.

In the satellite villages I visited, I accepted the kind hospitality of people struggling to survive, and was introduced to their children who are living with HIV and being treated for TB. I would meet children behaving as  you would expect any children in the world to: with playfulness; cheekiness; shyness; inquisitiveness; sulkiness, according to their personalities or the circumstances in which I chanced to meet them.

To put them at ease I might smile or pull a stupid face, or hand them a pencil and a piece of paper so they could write or draw.

I asked them what they have experienced, and what they hope for the future. It was my job to learn about their lives, and those of their families, and how the programmes introduced by the NGO I work for has affected them.

No, they aren’t objects of pity, or symbols of inspiration. They are just people, many of them very friendly and interesting, living trying lives under the yoke of a corrupt, parasitic government that is sucking the life from them and growing ever fat in doing so.

They are people like you and I, but mired in a poverty that oppresses them ever further.

TB is a disease of poverty, it thrives in the poorly ventilated and crowded homes that the poorest people in the world must live in, and, trapped in a cycle of poverty, the costs of treating it are crippling to many of these people.

A farmer weakened by TB cannot plough the earth, cannot then pay his rent for the year, the great and unrelenting weight of their situation crushes them further, even as the disease wastes them and they are made weaker.

I learned about the realities of treating TB, of poverty, which I knew on paper, but perhaps now understand better having seen first hand the real lives involved.

At times it was distressing to witness the reality of life for many of these people; to meet a child – as bonny and hopeful as any – born with HIV to a mother who will die soon after because there are not the resources to save her; to meet a mother abandoned, to become the sole source of support for her family, and to see how she struggles every day to feed her ailing child and herself.

A child being treated for TB in the Wakiso district of UgandaI listened to a bright little boy in a torn school uniform describe his hope for the future – to one day drive a car. His face lit up with the thought, casting away the shadows of his previous shyness.

Sitting there talking to him, I remembered how when I was his age, I shared this same simple dream.  We smiled at the thought together.

The father of another child expressed to me only the hope that their children can one day be well, and just like other children.

They aren’t objects of pity, or symbols of inspiration. No more or less than any child. They are just like other children and they should be able to live their lives like any other children, free from treatable diseases like TB.

The DETECT TB programme has saved 1000 children in the two years it has been in place in two districts in Uganda: providing education to communities; training for health workers; testing and screening; and free medication to treat children. It desperately needs funding in order to continue.

You can donate to help the DETECT TB programme save children’s lives

Ashes to ashes

A couple of weeks ago we watched the Bowie documentary celebrating his life. When it ended I changed the channel and there was The World at War on. It showed the Warsaw ghettoes, where jews were imprisoned and slowly degraded and all the while lied to about what would come next. There was footage of impoverished, starving people, holding out their last coins to Nazis to pay for train fares out of the ghetto. The trains were to Auschwitz.

It has ever been that people have believed lies over the truth, gratefully giving over meagre coins in the hope of buying salvation, be it a ticket to some less hopeless destination: on a train away from the ghettoes; a raft across the mediterranean; tithes to secure a promised afterlife. The truth is hard to bear. The truth is buried in a mass grave somewhere far from your dinner table. Or beneath it. Or right outside your window. It makes no difference.

It was too long ago, and now you can believe whatever you want and find your own chorus of approval in this electric mirrorland of personal illusions. The American president is lauded by Nazi salutes  – the Vice Chair of Momentum echoes the KKK to make vicious and untrue antisemitic claims and people rally to her defence citing a global jewish conspiracy. Breitbart, the Canary….the hymn sheets to their true believers churn out their lies, the lies that harmonise with a chosen view of the world, lies that absolve the sinner of their sins. Forgetting is sweeter. Lies are sweeter. The ashes are bitter, the ashes of the truth are bitter.

Fight or flight

Sadly, I understand why many people, including some I know who have devoted decades of their lives to the Labour party, have felt they have no choice but to leave. I have not yet left. After Corbyn’s second leadership win, I vowed to focus on the positive and be constructive. I intend to stay and fight, until either all hope, or all poisonous ideology, is gone.

That is why I have written this message to Momentum, on Facebook. I expect no constructive reply, I expect to have to deal with a barrage of abuse, if anything, in fact, but you have to stand up and say what you think, sometimes, don’t you?  Or what else, stand by and do nothing? Walk away in mute defeat?

Zionist conspiracy

This is what I wrote, and asked:

Your vice-chair, Jackie Walker has recently made the following claims.

1. More ‘gypsies’ (sic) than Jews were killed, proportionally, in the holocaust. This is a lie. 67% of Europe’s Jews were murdered; 25% of Europe’s Roma.

2. She also claimed that Jews were the chief financiers of the slave-trade – an easily refuted lie from a publication, by the Nation of Islam, referred to by Henry Gates, head of the department of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, as “the bible of new anti-Semitism”

3. She recently attacked Holocaust Memorial Day for not commemorating victims other than Jews and other genocides. HMD does both those things. It commemorates all the victims of the Holocaust and of genocides since then. To attack it is a display of ignorance, and an ignorance that seems, in the context of all the above – which is a selection from numerous other instances – to be motivated by a hatred of Jews.

None of the above is legitimate criticism of Israel. It is purely anti-Semitic propaganda and lies aimed at the Jewish people, with the sole aim of delegitimising and scornfully belittling their history and suffering.

Her claims: some of my best friends are Jews! a familiar retort of the racist; I can’t be anti-Semitic because I am Jewish! But this is nonsense; every misogynist has a mother – for one simple example of why this logic fails. If you repeatedly spread anti-Semitic lies, you are an anti-Semite. A claim of cultural immunity means nothing in the light of your repeated words and actions, surely?

That is how we avoid being racist. We judge people not on the colour of their skin, but on the substance of their words and actions.

I’m anti-racist! She says. But it is not enough to fight against racism for everyone, except for one group, that is – in fact – what racism is.

The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, recently stated:

“Let me be absolutely clear: anti-Semitism is an evil. It led to the worst crimes of the 20th century, every one of us has a responsibility to ensure that it is never allowed to fester in our society again.

“This party always has and always will fight against prejudice and hatred of Jewish people with every breath in our body.”

My question to you is what are you doing to embody the leader of our party’s words?

What actions are you taking?

How you can call your movement truly one of inclusivity and fighting against prejudice when you harbour so high up in your organisation someone who is repeatedly anti-Semitic?

Horror scope

Avijit Roy, atheist and advocate of secularism, was hacked to death by a mob of murderers wielding meat cleavers, in Bangladesh, after threats from Islamist hardliners.

This is a post from his daughter:

Avijit Roy

She talks of not being afraid to say what you think, and that is damn right. So this is what I think: Religion is like star signs – an erroneous folly that people cling to, to make them feel special.

It would be harmless enough if it had not been granted any power over the reality in which we all must exist. But unfortunately there are entire dynasties of wealth and power based entirely on the beliefs of people of the past more ignorant, or more deluded, or more cunning than we, perhaps. These dynasties are mighty and ruthless, they reign over and own notable chunks of the Earth

In these dynasties one of the worst crimes you can commit is to question the lies from which the great power is drawn. People are killed for doing so. But as long as you don’t question the lie, you can be assured that you are special – a member of the true believers, and will be granted a posthumous splendour to make up for the tyranny you must endure in life.

Unfortunately, feeling special is the underpinning concept of all fascistic movements, as well as all psychopathic notions of superiority. This superiority is defined by, and in turn decrees, the belief that others are inferior and therefore no more than meat or animals for exploitation and death(see the Koran for explicit description of the ‘kuffar’ or non-believers as lower than animals), so it is no surprise that inhumane acts like this murder, or the almost endless sickening parade of barbarism, subjugation and mutilation of women and general inhumanity perpetuate while stupid, self-serving ideas go unchallenged or revered.

You aren’t any star-sign. Those stars are illusions, many are long dead, as dead as many of the gods ancient peoples populated the same black and twinkling sky with.

You are not preferred by the creator of the universe, if there is one, simply because you submit to the will of an imagined tyrant and his earthly storm troopers. You are just a human being, equal in worth to all others. You are not superior and it does not matter how many thinking people you hack down with your weapons. You will never be so. Instead be equal with us all, we brothers and sisters in being and in thought, who wish to live in peace. Who don’t claim that we know all there is to know, but love the capacity to think and to question as a means to navigate those mysterious stars. Stars that don’t spell out your destiny, but that illuminate the darkness, as thought does ignorance.

Tiananmen Square: 25 years on

I was in China in 1994. I was acting over there, in the Shanghai International Shakespeare festival. I was young and wide-eyed. I still have quite big eyes.

Anyway, with my companions, I went to Tiananmen square, and had a small experience, about which I wrote a poem, that evening.

It isn’t very good, it approaches doggerel in fact, but I remembered that I had written it today, on this anniversary of the massacre that the Chinese government still refuses officially to acknowledge.

I reproduce the poem faithfully – doggedly – below:

There are pockmarks in the paving of
Tiananmen square
There are the young and the old
as the sun sets
behind the Forbidden City

We are tourists, with our votes
and our dollars
the bicycles fly past us, and

the soldiers march
across The Square

We met two young men,
by the flowers

built to depict a rising Phoenix.

Students, like ourselves,
at “the Peoples’ University”

We sat on the ground, cross legged
Louisa joked, it was “a sit down protest”

We all thought of tanks.

We sat and we talked
of our different worlds met there
and the crowds milled past

‘as westerners you will have heard of the massacre here no doubt, in 1989’

We looked into his eyes.

Two men in suits refused to mill
they stood nearby
listening and watching

He broke off and looked at the men.
Stopped speaking,

turned back.

‘It was not as bad as it was reported as being’ he said.

I looked down at the fresh paving stones,
at the pockmarks
on the old.

The men in suits and sunglasses conversed with a soldier

We offered to buy our new found friends lunch, and we walked the Beijing streets.

I saw a three year old girl
fall off her father’s bicycle
to the street below,

watched her get up without a tear, back onto the bike.

At McDonald’s they took their first bites
of Mcfreedom.

Both their first bites were their last.

‘This isn’t food’, they stated, matter of factly.

We said goodbye, outside.
With a plastic effigy of Ronald McDonald grinning from a bench.

They went off to unlock their bikes.

The two men in suits and sunglasses
were waiting.


Prince at King’s Place, 1st show, 14 February 2014, live review

It is par for the course on Valentine’s day to hearken keenly to breathless hints, succumb to whispers, be deliciously led to the summits of delight by teasing promises, promising teases.

This time, when I was almost certain, I ran, heart pounding, straight into a cab. Enduring a torturous journey with a friendly driver keen to discuss communism, while I was texting and checking the latest messages, yearning to be where my heart lay. I arrived to stand alone in uncertainty and longing which came to slow relief as I queued for an hour and a half in wild and restless wind and rain to see Prince play in King’s Place.

We had been catching hints on social media, finally following them when they suggested something true. My friend arrived to the queue only five minutes after I did and was about 80 people behind me. We thought it uncouth to jump the queue though it transpired he was 8 people away from getting in to the first show. A girl got booed by the 300 people she passed to then settle in with her friends, gulping away the shame with a fag and a can of beer.

The queue was nervous but friendly, there was an air of mystery to the night which led the man in front of me to be convinced I was wearing my hood up to disguise myself from paparazzi, he thought my voice sounded famous. I told him ’thanks, I can assure you I’m nobody, I’m wearing this because of the rain’, but he gave me a narrow eyed look suggesting he thought I must be bluffing.

Once inside and with my ticket, one final obstacle between me and Prince, acoustic, in a tiny room! I had to go to the bathroom, another man and I stood side by side, each of us impatiently cursing aloud at the slow will of nature keeping us bound to the porcelain.

Then I dashed in to the venue, to the sound of acoustic guitar and the unmistakable vocals of the man himself.

The room was warm and intimate, on stage he and the band were at once tight and playful. The musicians responded to his lead, so too the flow of the evening, which gave everything a professional but ever so slightly chaotic feel, as if anything could happen. After us dancing away to an acoustic ‘You Got the Look’ he suggested we sit while he and 3rdeyegirl jammed together and we dutifully did. What was particularly enjoyable was being in such close proximity that one could see clearly the expression on his face change, from passing notes of slight annoyance at a very rare misstep, to the contentment, joy and abandon upon his face as he sang and played.

We enjoyed first an acoustic set, where his raw talent was clear and bright to witness, featuring several remarkable covers. Particularly a lively and soulful take on the Clash’s Train in Vain, a dirty, funky, Bill Withers’ ‘Who is he and what is he to you?’ and a beautiful Crimson and Clover, soft and low, with the women in the audience providing a backing refrain of ‘over and over’ to the song’s end. He then segued into an electric set, funky and raw. Beginning the wild ride with him at the keys covering Billy Cobham’s Stratus.

Next he treated us to his exhilarating electric guitar: He has a great voice, is an accomplished pianist, but I’ve never seen anyone play electric guitar as well as Prince. It’s not just his technical ability, the complete mastery and assurance, which is staggering, but also the artistic musical invention on the fly. Stunning flourishes of melody and rhythm that burst forth, captivating and spectacular as fireworks in the night.

In contrast to his guitar playing, the Q and A element was interesting but slightly awkward, he gave self-effacing answers to effusive fans. The question on everyone’s lips could be surmised as ‘why are you so great?’, but when someone asked him basically this, he just rolled his eyes, soaked up the laughter, and went back to the music. Later on, in the midst of the electric set, one questioner rambled on with a densely worded question full of fan-knowledge about Prince’s remarkably diverse English influences: ‘I know you know Gary Numan…’ Prince did not quite answer the question, but shortly after, nodded to it somewhat by playing a very beautiful instrumental version of Roxy Music’s More Than this on electric guitar. I was rapt, because it was lovely and a marvellous synthesis of two musical worlds that I admire deeply. From a place without myself, I slowly became aware that I was literally on the edge of my seat, grinning, with a heart brimful of warm happiness.

In his longest response he told about how he found Jesus through Larry Graham, and while this could have been cloying, it was actually quite touching and added to the sense of proximity with him as he shared something obviously so personal to him, with wit and without preachiness.

Then he returned to the rock and the funk, we all danced, it was loud, fervent and mesmerisingly good. He seemed to be enjoying himself along with the rest of us. Partly, I wanted him to play my favourite songs, but this did not detract from enjoying his new material. The whole gig had an organic flow to it, it was extraordinary, stripped down, raw and scintillating. It may all have been cynical marketing for a new album, but last time he toured the UK he sold hundreds of thousands of tickets and played a huge stadium night after night. He could easily have done this again, yet he had chosen to do something completely different.

Maybe this was him seeking a particular experience for himself, not only us, perhaps trying to recapture some connection with music and the audience that he may have lost as his stardom has escalated stratospherically, carrying him far beyond the simple world we inhabit into the awesome but lonely and distant dark night full of stars. At one point he gestured to someone in the front row for a swig of their drink, they apologetically offered up an almost empty pint glass and Prince declined the dregs, but he had a playful grin on his face that seemed to indicate that he was amused, happy and comfortable.

After an hour and a half, there was a crescendo of music and then he asked if we wouldn’t mind leaving so the 500 people waiting outside – ‘our brothers and sisters’ could come in from the cold. I didn’t want to leave, but I was happy to, he had created a warm and loving atmosphere and made us all feel not just witness to, but part of, something very special.

Personally I feel very lucky to have seen him in such a modest space, it was a great (though expensive) privilege to watch him close up, playing in a relatively uncontrived and inventive way for so few people. Outside, I saw my friend at the front of the crowd ready to go in for the second show. I made some appreciative hand gestures that attempted to express the joy I felt but could not hope to. Maybe some types of joy can only be communicated through music I thought to myself as I put my hood up, turned my phone back on, and went back to being nobody in the rain.

Black and white

Nelson Mandela has died. As the world reflects on his life and mourns his passing some people, not all of them vicious racists and/or rabid right-wingers, denounce Mandela as ‘a terrorist’ because of the violent actions of the armed wing of the ANC, and while I think it is right to condemn acts which led to innocent lives being lost, I think it is important to do so in context.

The context of course is that of a country divided by racial segregation officially brought into being in 1948 by the National Party that ruled ’til 1994. Apartheid denied many rights to non-white South Africans, such as the right to vote or the right to love freely. In 1960, after the ANC organised protests against the pass laws the South African government made the ANC illegal. Those peaceful protests turned into a massacre of unarmed civilians by the police. 69 deaths were recorded. 50 of whom were women and children.  It was after this state sanctioned mass killing of civilians and the outlawing of the non-violent political party, that the MK, the armed wing of the ANC  came into being.

“[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”

Nelson Mandela

Contextually we should remember that, as well as the assassinations and deaths in custody of ANC members like Joe Qgabi and Steve Biko, the South African government killed women, like Ruth First, and children, like six year old Katryn Schoon with letter bombs.  To do so they employed people such as the South African secret policeman responsible for that child’s murder, Craig Williamson, and shotgun wielding hit men like Ferdi Barnard. Of course it is a stark truth that every government has its killers and thugs, but just because actions are state sanctioned does not mean that they should be accepted as just.

Bear in mind that the same police whose statistics we rely on to measure the violent actions of the MK, shot civilian men, women and children in the back as they fled. Bear in mind the government death squads, such as the sinisterly named The Civil Co-operation Bureau, and the campaigns of violence and murder they undertook.

I don’t condone violence, but I understand how it might become a desperate person’s or people’s seeming best option against impossible odds, against violence and repression.

To look at the comments barked out across the globe on social media, you might be forgiven for wondering whether Mandela was a saint or a terrorist, as if those are the only definitions possible. Whereas he was a man, a man who struggled in difficult times to bring equality to his people when they faced terrible injustice.

It’s easy, and facile, to impose black and white distinctions of absolute good or absolute evil to situations and the people therein. It is meaningless to do so. Reality is painted in many more colours. Pure white and pure black are actually very rare, if present at all, in nature, the same is true not just of human flesh, but also of human nature:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” —Rivonia trial, 1964

RIP Nelson Mandela.

Give sorrow words

A boy cries as he plays violin at the funeral of his mentor, who helped him escape poverty
Diego Frazão Torquato, photo credit Mark Tristan

Okay. Be prepared for this, it may make you cry, I write ‘may’ because there is a chance you are an internet connected washing machine or something.

The other day I chanced upon this image with the caption ‘a 12 year old boy plays violin at the funeral of his mentor, who helped him escape poverty and violence through music’.

Because I am not a washing machine this was enough to move me, the story within that sentence and the photo of the young boy’s tears, brought a lump to my fabric softener drawer. But then I decided to look into the story further.

I found out that his mentor was Evandro Joao da Silva, a man who co-ordinated a hopeful charity group called Afroreggae that encourages young people from all over Brazil to take part in activities such as football, music and capoeira to help avoid their descent into the world of drug-trafficking.

It is heartening to know there are people like this in the world, people struggling to fight the encroaching shadows with whatever light they can generate, whatever love they can muster against the vast indifference of a cruel world.

But this inspiring man, Evandro, was murdered in a robbery in Rio in October 2009.

The details of the robbery, captured in CCTV footage, add insult to injury:

The footage shows two men approaching Evandro and throwing him to the ground before shooting him. They then proceed to remove his jacket and flee the scene.

A military police car then passes the scene, with a full view of Evandro lying on the ground.

The officers do not assist Evandro but chase the thieves. On catching them, they do not arrest them but let them go.

The footage shows one of the thieves walking away just a few minutes later and afterwards, one of the officers putting Evandro’s belongings into the police car.

The police drive off, and Evandro is left to bleed to death.

Source: Rio Times 2009

So there you have it, a tragic and terrible story, a dark stone flecked with golden slivers of  the hope and kindness of people pitted against the grinding and constant gloom of greed and poverty. Upsetting, right?

But it doesn’t end there.

Within a year of playing the violin and weeping at the funeral of his murdered mentor, Diego was diagnosed with Leukemia.

This came shortly after his mother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.

Diego died aged 12 after slipping into a coma and an unsuccessful operation.

Here, at his funeral, his friends, other children from the Afroreggae program, play a final homage to him – the song Asa Branca.

What is the world, with all its indignity and suffering?

There are not words fit to say.

But there is, at least, music that tenderly, furiously, fills the abject silence.

Epilogue: I was going through a box of personal items the other day when I came upon a ticket  from 2003, when I was working in International Politics and had been sent to Brazil.

I was able to take a few days in Rio as holiday and while there I went to see Public Enemy (and the Streets) play live,  I remember very much enjoying the other Brazillian bands I saw supporting them, one of which was Afro Reggae.



January is a bleak month of dwindling hopes (after a fair start, the jogger stops and wheezes in the crisp air, plump hands on knees, dark frown-lines of defeat griddled onto their red raw mince face) but February carries with it the dancing sound of a distant spring, that encourages the heart and enlivens the step.

With that (whatever that was) in mind, here are a few inspiring things I’ve found about the place:

“People say why don’t you give it up? I don’t think they quite understand. I’m not doing it just for the money, or for you. I’m doing it for me.”

Keith Richards

Light painting created by mobile of multicoloured perspex aeroplanes

And how about this? A gorgeous work by Rashad Alakbarov, ‘Flight to Baku’, using perspex ‘paper aeroplanes’ to cast coloured shadows that paint a scene.

And here’s a pep talk from ‘Kid President’ that made me smile.

If that doesn’t do it for you, that’s fine, here’s a dog in a top hat:

Dog in top hat, from East End of London circa 19th Century


I recently returned from a small Island off the coast of Vietnam where I had a motorbike accident.  I had hoped the serenity of the island would help me focus on writing, but the only writing I did was on the back of an envelope just after my accident. 

It’s somewhat disjointed (the writing, not the foot) but I was probably still in shock, I reproduce it here nonetheless:

I’m lain on a gurney in a tiny Vietnamese hospital. I’ve just had stitches to close a gaping wound in my foot after a motorbike accident. 

A woman is dying noisily in the room behind me.

Another, even more serious accident is in the cubicle beside me.

A man name ‘Luck’ translated for me. He’s the general manager of where I’m staying. He sat with me, “you’ll be fine”, he said – but he left during the stitches, looking queasy.

Luck! A one armed, few toothed man just wandered into the hospital, selling lottery tickets.

My blood was spurting out on the red clay road.

I tumbled and slid on my right hand side.

My Frankenstein monster foot, in stitches.

I was a boy the last time I had stitches. 

Foot feels weird, taut, numb.

Will the pain return?

Oh, the people I love.  I love them.

A man staunched my wound with a ripped open cigarette, the nicotine leaves sopping up my blood and stinging into my system. 

“What can I do?” I asked myself on that red clay road.

Life is not to be taken for granted.

I love you. If ever I have loved you. I love you.