A breezy tale of Africa

Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time is one of those shows which seem to justify the BBC’s existence all by itself. For those who don’t know it, a thumbnail: three experts engage in a discussion of a particular historical subject, chaired by a pre-briefed and always intelligently confused Bragg. Its website includes a complete archive of the show, which has covered topics as wide-ranging as Free Will, Carbon, Robin Hood and The Nicene Creed.

So wonderful is the programme that one hesitates to criticise it, but criticise it I will. Although it’s not really Bragg’s show I’m criticising, it’s an entire model of British historical narrative, which is a bit much for a morning blogpost, but there you are.

In Our Time is, by its nature, a sky-high bird’s-eye view of culture and history, and as such it places a great weight on narratives to explain things. A well-told anecdote trumps a list of numbers and dates, at least in a 40-minute radio broadcast covering Big Ideas.

When discussing science and culture, this is fine and dandy. I don’t expect to lean to understand Relativity in 40 minutes; all I can hope is to narrowly lessen the scope of my ignorance.

But when discussing history, the format can lead to a breeziness and occasional triviality which can mask some of the horrors of the past.

I’ve only been properly offended twice when listening to In Our Time. Once was during its show on the South Sea Bubble, which focussed almost entirely on British society and British concerns and only mentioned in passing that the South Sea Company, whose shares were the cause of the bubble, was set up for a very specific purpose.

It was a slaving company. And this matters because the core idea that led to the Bubble – that slave trading would turn out to be so lucrative that Britain’s national debt could be debited against it in a demonic early version of Enronomics – was a foul and pestilent one. It needs saying again and again.

The second offence came this morning, and sparked this post. It was during the show on The Berlin Conference of 1885. Even that title suggests a northern European bias in IoT’s worldview which is understandable but also unfortunate. For the Berlin Conference involved the diplomatic legitimisation of the rape of Africa (for once, the R word is the only one strong enough). As European arms destroyed African societies, as the palm oil trade replaced the ivory trade (for all the elephants had gone from the western side of the continent by then, to make, in Bragg’s phrase, ‘piano keys and billiard balls’), and as Leopold of Belgium continued his larcenous and genocidal takeover of the congo, Bismarck invited the European powers to his place for a grand jolly involving maps, rulers (in both senses of the word) and pencils.

I could count the African names voiced during the programme on the fingers of one hand. Leopold’s activities in particular were described in a breezy pantomime villain way what made me want to find a way to give a voice to every one of the ten million Africans he and his minions destroyed.

Such a task is impossible. But it does seem to me that Britain in particular has difficulty discussing its past when it comes to such matters. It’s something I’ve talked about at panels and on here: our joy in celebrating the abolition of the slave trade, and our profound discomfort at discussing what went before it. If Britain is to ever find its true level in the world – somewhere comfortably around Sweden and Canada – it needs to find an accommodation with these matters.

So here’s a start. When discussing imperialism in particular, for every explanatory narrative featuring Europeans, look for an explanatory narrative featuring Africans, or Indians, or native Americans. Give a voice to the dispossessed by giving them their stories back.

Try, for instance, reading about Msiri, as I just did on Wikipedia. Discover an African protagonist as vivid as any European : a Nyamwezi from Tabora in Tanzania, a trader in copper, ivory and slaves who went to Katanga in the mid 19th century armed with European guns and forced himself on a Wasanga chief as his successor.

Msiri used Katanga’s copper and ivory to buy more guns and started acquiring wives and territories, and eventually controlled a unique trade route from the west to the east coast. He had more than 500 wives, each one of them from the village of a conquered chieftain, and each one of them a spy for Msiri.

In 1886 he invited in western missionaries on his own terms in an attempt to learn more about the Europeans whose power was growing in the region. Later, these missionaries would advise Msiri to have all contracts from Europeans translated before signing them, and this resulted in Msiri’s enraged refusal to sign a one-sided contract with Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company. Msiri also refused contracts and agreements with Leopold’s Congo Free State, such that a force of 400 men were sent to seize Katanga. Msiri was shot by a Belgian lieutenant who, it is said, cut off Msiri’s head and carried it round, shouting ‘I have killed a tiger! Vive le Roi!’.

It’s not a bad story, is it? I didn’t know it before writing this post. And now I do know it, I know a little bit more about Africa – about its own heroism and wickedness, its pride and its hubris, its greed and its cleverness. I know that Africans are subject to the same impulses as Europeans, that their portrayal as victims robs them of their complexity and their humanity, and that their narratives are there to be found if we look for them. It’s well worth the effort to do so.

The infectious disease that is modern entertainment

Last week, a young woman was widely photographed in Amsterdam. She was lighting a joint taken from an artfully placed designer handbag. Her body was semi-naked and apparently completely hairless. She wore very high heels and too much make-up. There was not an ounce of fat on her body.

You don’t need to see the picture again.

Here’s some pictures you might find more interesting.

This is a picture of the young woman’s manager, who also managed Britney Spears at the start of her career, launching her to global superstardom while dressing her as a schoolgirl. His name is Larry Rudolph.



This is a picture of the young woman’s agent. He is called Kevin Huvane. He is also agent to Natalie Portman and Jennifer Aniston, among many others.


And this is a picture of the man who directed the young woman’s most recent video, in which she was portrayed naked atop a wrecking ball. He is called Terry Richardson. In 2010, the Danish model-turned-filmmaker Rie Rasmussen said this about him (as reported in the Guardian):

He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of. They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves. His ‘look’ is girls who appear underage, abused, look like heroin addicts … I don’t understand how anyone works with him.


OHWOW & HTC Celebrate The Release Of "TERRYWOOD" With Terry Richardson

And this is a picture of the young woman’s father, who is also a board member of the Parents Television Council, an appointment I can only assume is satirical.


These are the men behind the young woman on the stage in Amsterdam. I’m sure they all have absolutely her best interests at heart. Personally, I wouldn’t trust any of them to sit the right way on a lavatory.


You couldn’t run a mud bath

I have this image of John Giddings preparing for an April walk in the Lake District. He packs flip flops, sunglasses, shorts and t-shirts, smears on the sun cream and looks forward to the ice cream. Then he arrives, and remembers that England is a temperate island on the warpath of every Atlantic weather front there is.

Who is John Giddings? He’s the man who brought you this:

In other words, he “organises” the Isle of Wight Festival. At which I had the great fortune to spend two windswept, mud-lashed nights over the weekend.

You’ve read the stories by now. You’ve seen the photos of attractive young girls covered in mud in the newspapers, smiling through the horror. What you haven’t seen is the crush for the toilets, of which there were hardly any (the toilets to the left of the main stage brought me my most terrifying crowd experience ever, not quite Hillsborough but chest-clenchingly panic-stricken none the less).

You haven’t sat in a car for nine hours on the Isle of Wight’s gridlocked roads – which were gridlocked entirely because the festival organisers made no provision for waterlogged car parks after the wettest month in living memory. Nowhere at the Festival – not in the car parks, not in the campsites, not in the main arena – was there a single piece of metal or plastic sheeting or even a bale of straw, the last defence against mud at the smarter, older, wiser Glastonbury. I didn’t take my car, but a great many people did. A lot of them spent Thursday night either stuck on a road, stuck on the mainland or (most horrible of all) stuck on a ferry going round and round, unable to get into the gridlocked terminals.

Think about that for a second: massive car ferries, stuck out at sea, unable to dock. Because of a music festival.

We travelled on foot, taking the hovercraft from Southsea, arriving at Ryde just after 4pm on Thursday, expecting to find a bus to take us six miles to the Festival. We found instead a 200-metre long queue, and no buses. “They’re coming,” we were told. “But the roads are gridlocked.” We waited two hours, and eventually got on one. It went a mile or two up the road.

And then it stopped.

Over the next two hours, we moved maybe 500 yards. So, with about three miles to go, we started walking through the wind and rain, and finally arrived as darkness was falling. Every campsite seemed to be full, until we were lucky enough to find an empty one opening (no signpost, no advice, no communication).

I spent two days there. The act I most wanted to see, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, were fantastic. So were Elbow. But as the crowds thickened, the main arena became a morass of sticky, fetid mud. The low point (after gridlock, rainy walk, muddy campsite, etc. etc.) was the walk back to the campsite on Friday night – thousands of people squelching through gelatinous mud, their boots coming away, falling left and right, Dante’s Woodstock.

On Saturday, I fled, to a house party in Somerset with beds, baths and good company. My two companions, hardier than me, left it another day and got back to London on Sunday.

Thousands stayed, and I’m sure many of them had a good time. There seems to be a significant constituency of festivalgoers who take misery as being part of the experience, who can cope with anything as long as there are enough drugs and drink. These people tend to be young and, on the surface, a bit mad. Personally, I can think of better ways of spending my weekend. And nothing makes me more irritated than organisers who take this kind of easygoing persistence for granted, and in consequence do little or nothing for those attending. An older American woman who was stuck on the same bus as us kept asking: “Why aren’t they doing something? And why isn’t anyone complaining?”

Well, indeed.

As for me, I will never, ever attend a Festival organised by the people behind this festival. I’ll go to Latitude, Glastonbury and even V, because I know those places make provisions for wet weather. To all those living on the Isle of Wight who had their lives disrupted by what is, when all’s said and done, just a music concert – I’m very sorry. I hope you get as sincere an apology from the IoW Festival itself.

Things I learned today

Commuting to work is ridiculous and is making Americans poor – and that’s even more true in England (Mr Money Mustache)

Amazon got a lot of U.S. page views in September – which means a lot of revenue, probably (Business Insider)

Kobo’s going to launch an ereader in France in partnership with FNAC, and has ambitions across Europe – but no news of a deal in Britain, where Waterstones has made noises about wanting to launch an ereader (PaidContent)

The story behind Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck is more interesting than you’d imagine (Gawker)

David Foster Wallace felt it was OK to make up dialogue in non-fiction piece; at least, that’s what his old friend Jonathan Franzen has implied (The Awl)

There’s a whole world of Complaints Choirs (Deafening Silence,  ht Tyler Cowen)

Paul Clarke has asked some really interesting questions about public data and semi-public data, and how friction in access to such data could be both deliberate and socially useful. Read this. (Honestly Real).

People don’t get aggressive because they’re drunk; they get aggressive because they think alcohol will make them aggressive. That’s the problem (BBC News)



Things I learned today: Tuesday October 11 2011

A no-doubt irregular series of posts which are mainly links to other people’s stuff.

The Apollo 11 astronauts had to fill in a customs form on their return from the Moon. (How To Be A Retronaut)



Michael Morpurgo believes there’s no such thing as writer’s block:

It’s too neat. Of course there are moments when writers find it extremely difficult to get on, but there’s always a very good reason for it.

American publishers’ “revenue from digital products” was $1.88 billion in 2008; in 2010, it had grown to $3.38 billion (from Publishing Perspectives’ Frankfurt Show Daily)

Publishers think an ebook explosion outside the U.S. is still “at least three years away” (from Publishing Perspectives)

“Power buyers” who buy at least one ebook a week make up 20% of all ebook buyers; and Kindle users buy three times as many books as Amazon’s print customers “once they have entered the Kindle eco-system” – though I’m not quite sure what that means (from Publishing Perspectives)

The government and the Mother’s Union believe they can work with ISPs to throttle porn (The Guardian); Cory Doctorow wonders why the mainstream media always takes up this story, and always follows it without question (Boing Boing) – Polly Curtis is crowdsourcing the question whether any of this will actually work (Guardian)

An Iranian actress has been lashed 90 times after appearing in an Australian film – it’s not immediately apparent why (The Times £)

Julia Gillard’s partner is called the First Bloke (The Times £)

Google+ is losing users buy the bucketload; Twitter users say why (ReadWriteWeb)

Y Combinator is now getting one application every minute (@paulg)

Britain has Europe’s second-largest average farm size, after the Czech Republic (Guardian)