August 03, 2007

Could Benazir Bhutto do a deal with the General

It has been reported that President Musharaf of Pakistan could be trying to make a deal with the exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Musharraf is currently besieged on a number of fronts. He faces domestic Sunni and Shi’ite extremism. He also has to deal with the Taliban and their allies – who operate both in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. Additionally, he also faces opposition from the two main civilian politicians who dominated Pakistan in the 1990s – Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto - and from other figures in civil society. This can be seen by the lawyers' protests against his decision to sack the Chief Justice.

To make a deal with the PPP would enable Musharraf to gain broader political support for his government. However, it is a risky business. Bhutto may herself want to take over the reigns of power and may thus want him to stand aside in order to make any deal work. Or, alternatively, the risk could be one for her. She could lose the support and she and her father built up for the PPP by siding with a military regime. It could go either way and I do not know how people would react to news of such a deal.

The PPP have historically been the most secular of the two main parties in Pakistan. As such, a deal with them makes sense if Musharraf wants to build a secular regime. However, such a deal would perhaps drive the other opposition parties into the arms of Islamic fundamentalists. And, furthermore, I am not sure that a deal with the PPP would deal with the regional tensions that Pakistan faces. The Bhutto family’s powerbase is in Sindh and, if Musharraf is felt to be favouring Sindhis by appointing PPP stalwarts from that province to power, it may further alienate Pashtuns and others on the North-West frontier and may also cause anger among the Punjabi population who, numerically, make up over 40% of the 160m population.

So, it seems that both Musharraf and Bhutto are stuck in a difficult position. Will they make an alliance or not? We’ll have to wait and see.

August 02, 2007

From Russia with Love

I was asked to post something about Russia from a personal perspective and thought this was a fair starter. Firstly, I’m not in Russia proper – I’m in one of the republics although I do cross over quite often. Secondly, though my financial position doesn’t match it, my social state, in Twelfth Night terms, is ‘well’.

Therefore I don’t yet live down in the sewer but am conveyed from door to door. I shop locally, walk about and chat with folk, hitch rides occasionally just to tune my ear to latest developments and so on. But what is it really, really like, living here? This is my take.

The photos were taken in about 1998, before recent rebuilding. Now there are IMAX cinema, velodromes, huge new estates of low-rise houses in all sorts of odd architectural shapes and the area you see in the photos is now regarded as getting on a bit in years. The sweeping new, kilometre long suspension bridge runs from the end of our Prospekt and the traffic is now of London proportions. There is money in this city, make no mistake but it’s not evenly distributed.

Many older people buy cracked eggs because they’re cheaper and vendors never turn away poor people but try to accommodate them – you see it all the time. The other day, an old lady was fumbling around for five kopek to complete a purchase of a little chocolate bar worth seven roubles [about 25 US cents]. I told the shopgirl to give her three bars and it wasn’t taken as largesse in any way by the girl – everyone pitches in for the old people.

The pension system is an absolute national disgrace and gets me hot under the collar.

No one pitches in for a drunk. If you’ve given up the will to live and let’s be fair – many have, particularly in the shadow of all the new infrastructural construction – then you’re on your own. People sidestep you in the streets, even if you’ve fallen over – actually because you’ve fallen over - and these people are forever wandering onto busy roads and getting run down. I see it as a merciful release but their families might differ on that.

The temptation’s there, all right, to turn to alcohol.

It’s in the culture, with a plethora of self-justifying, amusing, lexical excuses, a bit of excess is almost expected over here and a man who won’t let himself go at least a little is regarded with suspicion. I’m such a man but I compensate for that in other ways.

The layout of Russia is hard for westerners who have never been here to conceptualize. There’s Moscow in the far west and that’s another story in itself. They say here ‘malyenkaya strana’, meaning little country and that’s what Moscow is. To come to Moscow and say you’ve seen Russia is to come to London and say you’ve seen Scotland. The regions both share Moscow’s organization and infrastructure e.g. housing and roads but that’s where the differences begin.

Geographically, the countryside predominates, as in Britain - a series of hamlets, all vaguely linked but surrounded by leagues of grassland, forest, waterways and all very pretty in a different way to, say, the US. The long, straight, white barked beriozi [silver birch trees] stand a little like the trees in Fontainebleu, for those who’ve been there, perhaps around Barbizon. It’s distinctively, continental European.

Then comes the outskirts to the city and the checkpoints and five or so main arteries run inwards towards the centre. Even within the city proper there are parks and gardens everywhere, most of the paths are unmade and it’s not possible to get home on foot without dirtying one’s shoes. There is dirt and dust in a 50s sort of way.

The centre follows the pattern of cities worldwide – inner-city slum clearance, fabulous new shopping complexes and DIY barns on the outskirts for the new yuppies to visit, harshly contrasting with the greenery surrounding it and the middling circle of slightly older suburbs, virtually untouched and now losing their 1950s sheen.

My city has just over a million people and it’s getting crowded, especially on the roads, where the introduction of western credit is now destroying people’s lives and flooding the roads with incapable drivers, along with other things more dire.

The people really are children. A twenty year old girl is not grown up, despite appearances. She may look like a sophisticated femme-fatale, done up in full war-paint of the ersatz YSL variety and she certainly doesn’t blot her copybook in the various nightclubs springing up all over town but it’s an illusion. At home she has a family and grandparents and she’ll often leave the middle of the dance floor and put in call home on her mobile, just to say she’s OK.

And she is OK. The level of violence is so much lower than in western cities, depending, of course, to which club you go. Drugs, narcotics – these are the major worry of parents, not whether their darling will actually make it home in one piece.

It’s the students themselves who most decry the drug scene. Time and again they’ll bring it into the discussion and behind the tough exterior can be seen a core of ‘niceness’, a good-heartedness and it’s not a sham. Trouble is, as just mentioned, they are children, easily led down some new rapacious path and they never do things by halves.

Fashion is one aspect. This year all the girls are in maroon leather jackets. Last year it was all browns. The year before – cowboy style. Forever shopping, whatever floods the market becomes the new fashion. ‘We’re all individuals,’ they cry and it would be a good setting for Life of Brian. The guys and there are guys, if you look hard enough, they’re in their regulation black leather jackets, jumpers, jeans, black, patent leather shoes and cheeky smiles.

No doubt the Russian guy can be a charmer. That’s how he gets what he wants in the society, why the girls have no defences and why he has so little respect for womanhood. It’s all too easy. I thank them because the majority of the females are p-ed off extraordinarily by this arrogance and there’s more than a niche for a ‘gentleman’ who takes them out and holds doors open for them.

My two or three guy friends are big, lanky, happy-go-lucky, good looking, semi-dissolute bears who’d do anything for a mate. One of the girls yesterday told me she loved the new stubble on my chin – actually, I just hadn’t shaved but it seems just the ticket over here. Things are a little looser than in Britain, say.

So, they are some random thoughts by the Higham. Dosvida'nye, shsli'vo.

Crossposted at Shades .

July 31, 2007

On "Building Out Of Democracy:" How Did Housing Policy Shape Race Relations in the US?

If you haven't seen Josh's blog yet, please do make the time. Previous posts in this series have been on Not Saussure, Ruthie, and Matthew Sinclair.

This is perhaps Josh's finest post, finer than even his musings on Anselm and the ontological proof. What makes it so good is that it hearkens back to the idea of monuments being an age's legacy. Pericles hopes Athens will erect monuments that stand for all time in The Peloponnesian War. What are our monuments?

If Democracy can be built, that is, be made and fostered by the type of building we engage in, then it stands to reason that democracy can be degraded, destroyed even, by the same process. Our democracy was literally built... the ideals of the enlightenment put down in stone and mortar. Our independent nation was born of that building and we perpetuated this nation by following a similar design town from town.

Our monuments rise and fall with how we build. Building is not an activity for the future as much as the present. It demonstrates our values fully and is useful, as opposed to merely being something to show future ages they have nothing. Now it looks like the "present" in the 1950's, when America was confronted with the specter of communism, led to a certain view of what should be built:

In America one could own their house, yard, garage, and car. This was the might of capitalism, the individual elevated and praised. The suburbs were the places to raise the next generation of Americans, the places to raise a family. Not everyone had an opportunity to do this and for many the “American Dream” was actually a nightmare.

Who was excluded from the Dream?

The move to a more suburban environment began well before the 1950’s, back in the mid-twenties, and would have continued unabated if not for WWII. The cities were considered “blighted to the very core” and so deemed unlivable. The depression brought about the creation of the FHA to help secure housing loans in the nation. To help guarantee loans, and set standards for the real-estate industry, the FHA created a coding system to determine if an area could be loaned to. This system ranged from Blue, the best, to Red, the worst. Blue neighborhoods were all upper class and white, thus the phrase “blue blood,” while red neighborhoods were all African American. Red neighborhoods could not receive FHA loans, and as a result of this policy many other lending agencies followed suite. Since most of the cities were becoming “redder” less money saw its way there. The money was being channeled to the suburbs....

In this context the American dream is just the extension of institutionalized racism into the housing industry. In reality only white and affluent families could partake, and as a result the suburbs became the built representation of intolerance in this nation. Just as our democracy had been built it was slowly being built out of.

It should be noted that Josh is very conservative - he's pro-life, very much for the war, faithful to Catholicism. And it is precisely because of that conservatism that he can see moral issues a mile away. Plenty of people work in planning (many of the ones I know are way too liberal in a really obnoxious way, I'd rather hang with Marxists) thinking they can help others - but to what degree are they just perpetrating a faulty vision of humanity for the sake of what they feel is better?

Liveblogging Edwardian Football

Later today, I shall be liveblogging Edwardian football. Later today, that is, and late enough already you might think. But I have to buy the DVD first, and so right now I'm in a South West Trains window seat blinking away the unaccustomed sun, on my way to the BFI. Earlier today, my flat was valued at a sum that would have comfortably purchased Herbert Chapman's first managerial club, Northampton Town, back in 1910, and my mood is good as the train slicks past the ruins of Nine Elms.

Waterloo station is essentially 1920s in form. As I dodge my way from the concourse's crowded eastern end I reflect that the Mitchell and Kenyon films all show the world as it was in that impossible time before this enormous place looked anything like this. Waterloo's roof has been cleaned quite recently, and must look as new now as it did when it was, in part, a war memorial, in part, a recognition that the world was moving on beyond the losses of the Great War in that dumb, forgetting manner that always seems so extraordinary to veterans who can't shake the ghostly mud of war from their eyes.

We're so far beyond Mitchell and Kenyon days now that even the Shell complex of the 1930s has been hacked about, and it is no longer possible to take an elevated walkway right onto the South Bank. Mitchell and Kenyon's roads look empty to us, with the odd exception, and have people milling about on them: suddenly, you start to hope that the car won't catch on. But of course, it does and has, and brings with it more than fringe benefits, but these can seem far off when you're dodging the buses and black cabs around the Royal Festival Hall.

With the Shell Centre altered, you're now forced up and down four separate staircases before you're finally on that last strip by the river that takes you past Strada, Wagamama, Foyles et al (private secrets that have somehow turned into chains when you weren't looking) and an open-air bookstall the size of two tennis courts to the BFI.

The BFI's website made a peculiar promise: Dr Vanessa Toulmin of the University of Sheffield would write commentary to the DVD, but Adrian Chiles of Match of the Day 2 would actually read it. This, I am sure, will sound like demonic possession. Toulmin is not without a certain reflexive dislike of anyone in M&K who shows evidence of having money, and the warm, avuncular, witty Chiles is going to have to rabbit this dreary, dead-end stuff for almost two hours. I wonder if he'll have to do it whilst his beloved West Bromwich Albion are on?

If you're entering the BFI for more than just coffee, it can come across as something of a tunnel, an exorbitantly stylish version of Bank to Monument. In the earlier releases of M&K material, it's impossible to ignore the general cheerfulness abroad in Edwardian England. There are exceptions, especially where exhausted, demoralized factory workers are concerned, but overall the cynical note is absent from the scene. Absent too is the absence in modern faces so often: Waterloo station exhibits a little of this, Victoria and Charing Cross have it in spades.

Edwardians remind me of the perky interestedness of the characters in the BFI coffee shop, who, brightened by their success at finding a free table (there isn't one now), act as though life will always be this convenient, obliging and interesting now, as though they've finally come into the right room and can stay.

Perhaps it's just the presence of the camera. Literature didn't warn me that morale was quite so high then.

The new DVD is being released today, which is why I'm going out of my way to buy it. I can't really explain why I'm in such a hurry. Each film on the DVD would have been filmed and processed one Edwardian day, then shown a day or so later to a local audience, then stored. A century later, it made its way to the BFI, who conserved it and are now publishing it. One hundred years: what difference does a day make now?

On the other hand, think: apart from the film makers, and their first audience, and the conservators, and the editors, and Vanessa Toulmin, and Adrian Chiles, and preview audiences, and the possessors of early copies, I could be the first person to see this for a century. But only if I'm quick about it.

Of course, the BFI shop is at the very end of this tony underground complex. The floor under my feet now is zinc, I think, and I can't for the life of me work out what's on the walls. It isn't marble. Sunlight is coming in from somewhere, and over to my left, what looks like a razor-thin hedge conceals another, more exclusive coffee shop from the first.

Given that the DVD is being released today, I expect it to be absolutely all over the shop. But there's no sign of it at first glance - on the big screen on the wall, medieval Japanese rush each other with swords and sticks of bamboo. I am the only person present not toting a huge rucksack.

It's not on the shelves, either. I drift behind the scenes, and, there it is, a modest display on a table, it and its partner (M&K films of Ireland, interesting too in that they look to my uneducated eye like films of 1850s England, all bare feet, sideburns and lacemaking). You can buy a set of playing cards featuring Manchester United v Burnley at Edwardian Turf Moor. The quality of the original film was extremely poor, so you do need to be told what the cards are about, and I pass.

When I was a child, we owned the usual family album, begun c. 1890 and ending in the early 1950s. There's something mature, adult, about the earliest pictures. I used to feel that Edwardian group photos - so serious, so confident, so smart and tidy - looked more real than the scruffy chaos of '70s Britain. It was as though their existence was stronger than ours, had more right to life, that it had a prevailing imperative to ours, that it might return any second if only the greater strength of their reality could only be concentrated upon for a second or two.

I thought that there were answers in those old pictures to unspoken but clearly understood questions, questions which if posed to my generation and my parents' would find no justifiable answer. Now, I find myself wondering the same kind of thing about Edwardian football, whether there was something in these M&K remnants that would tell me why we are so... thick, about our national game, so prone to mourn our failures, so prone to do nothing about them, so prone to attribute what success does come to nonsensical, meaningless phrases like passion and commitment and never to skill or strategy.

We invented the game, and were probably the best at it until at least 1923, but we stopped thinking about it and developing it very early. Why? Was it just World War One? Or are we, so ready to laud our own intelligence as a nation, actually rather slow and stupid, unable to take the flint axe we've cobbled together and build it into a metal arsenal the equivalent of our opponents'?

I've bought it now, and I'm sitting in the BFI gents urgently ripping off the cellophane. Why, again, do I feel as though I'm acting against the clock? I've been asked to find out if Wolverhampton Wanderers feature: I have owned the DVD for two minutes, and now I know. I wonder what anyone listening from outside my cubicle thinks I'm doing, or does everyone unpack with this kind of mad celerity?

The booklet promises scenes of long-vanished bits of stadia: stands for 5,000 that disappeared in 190? and have previously not been seen in film or photograph. Of course, the 5,000 will actually be in these buildings, ugly as car parks most of them. And they're gone, and the stand they're in is gone. And the spreading world around them is gone, vanished by inches in untold billions of minute changes that spread themselves lazily out over a century as they rubbed out the whole familiar country.

So my haste to get to the South Bank this morning, to get my hands on this shining new release, is all for a frustratingly banal reason, really, isn't it - I'm after evidence for my own coming death and disappearance. I want to know for sure that this rumoured, incredible thing really is coming for me, and I'll know because I'll see match days full of the future dead, who, in Barthes' words, have died and are going to die. I can't help wishing it was something better, something less sixth-form, than that. But it isn't.

POSTSCRIPT: two hours of Edwardian sport is a lot of Edwardian sport. I bailed out sometime during the "Northern Union" matches. But now I know whether Edwardian football was any good or not: the newly released films are far better than the ones shown hitherto in Dan Cruickshank's series or on the previous BFI DVDs. And I think I know what happened to our national game, but that's for another time.

July 29, 2007

Matthew Sinclair On Nature, Calm and Conservatism

This self-proclaimed ramble by Matthew Sinclair is a really good post which deserves to be reread and commented further on.

He begins by musing on a large piece of art displayed publicly:

I quite like the reliance of the installation on its surroundings. Alone it would just look like an Imperial War Museum mock-up of Stalingrad. In the distinctly eternal surroundings of the Royal Society courtyard it becomes a lot more interesting. It highlights just how remarkable the security and peace of the Royal Society is. This suggests to me the conservative message that the stability and civility of our society is rare and special. We should be careful of change that might, inadvertently or otherwise, endanger that achievement.

He then considers that this art doesn't lie in a heavily urbanized area, but a "semi-rural, suburban" area. Perhaps - he is not explicit about this link - that merger between art and its surroundings is evocative of something larger:

...[I]n urbanised societies many do not regularly visit even semi-rural, suburban areas like Letchworth and its surroundings. There has long been a contention that cutting yourself off from the natural world in this way is a bad idea. That the human experience is inextricably linked to elements of the natural world and cutting ourselves off from them is psychologically risky.

The analogy between a unique construct like art fitting in with its surroundings might be that of Man with Nature. The problem with the city is that that analogy there is Man surrounded only by what Man has created: there is no true analogy between the maker of artifice living within his [or, if you like to reverse the analogy because you worship Gaia, its] own artifice -

I think that the countryside provides perspective. In the city everyone is rushing around attending to their own obsessions. By contrast, disinterested Nature possesses an infectious calm. This view is close to the opposite of the Gaia thesis which seeks to anthropomorphize nature and turn it into one more concerned consciousness.

And finally, he concludes with a painter where the beauty and power of the landscapes even overwhelms those within the landscape. Uniqueness itself is unique because of what it contrasts: sheer beauty and sheer power that is always overwhelming, and never to be individuated.

Please give this post a second look, as well as the ones of Ruthie and Not Saussure commented on previously.

Japanese politics

This is my first guest piece on Henry’s blog. I would like to thank him for inviting me to post on it and hope that we all can keep the blog going while he’s away.

I wrote on my own blog about the Upper House elections that are taking place in Japan today (as folk that know me will know – am keen on looking at foreign elections and seeing what they might tell us about the politics in that country!). The Japanese mid-term elections look like they might be a defeat for the ruling LDP – which has dominated Japanese politics since its creation in 1955. However, as the Upper House is weaker than the lower one, I am not sure that the LDP will actually be blocked from carrying out many of its policies – given its Lower House majority – since the Lower House does have the constitutional power to overrule the Upper House.

In addition, it seems to me – and I wonder if those au fait with Japanese politics will be able to enlighten me on this – that the ideological differences between the opposition Democrats and the governing LDP are not that different. The Democrats are themselves a fairly-centrist catch-all party.

Prior to the 1990s and the growth of the Democrats, the main opposition party was the Social-Democrats. They did have political differences with the LDP and a different ideological view. They used to get 20-25% of the vote in most elections until the 1990s. I understand that a lot of their MPs did go over to the Democrats when they were founded, but it still seems to me strange that their support has fallen back so dramatically. If anything, the economic recession that post-1990 Japan has suffered should be making people more keen to try a different economic approach. The LDP was popular before 1990 because it presided over the dramatic economic boom of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. When the boom ended, I would have assumed that voters would have turned to the main opposition party. Instead, it seems that voters flocked to a new party – one that does not seem to take notably different economic views from the LDP. The Social-Democrats have been reduced to less than 5% of the votes and, in fact, poll worse than the Japanese Communist Party [which has actually increased its support in some elections since the end of the Cold War].