The Climate Change Paradigm

When I was child growing up in the late 80s in Zimbabwe, Africa, there was a nascent environmental movement establishing itself. This encompassed locally significant projects like community wildlife management (see the CAMPFIRE project), rhino conservation and other game conservation projects, and a wide range of ecological conservation endeavours. My imagination was fired by the conservation movement and I was eager to learn more and be involved. The prevailing mood was optimistic both regionally (a relatively peaceful  and integrated society and prosperous economy and independence for neighbouring South Africa being two that come to mind) and internationally (end of the cold war). Environmental issues did not feature prominently in the school curriculum but neither were they absent. Extra-curricular clubs like the Bundu-Bashers and Cub Scouts were a healthy outlet for urban kids like me who wanted to engage more with these issues. I also remember most households subscribing to Reader’s Digest and National Geographic Magazine (with a Junior ‘World’ edition for youngsters) which were a good source of articles. The local newspapers weren’t great but Time and Newsweek were also readily available.

One of the big topics of the day was global warming. Whilst it is still in use today, mostly by an older generation of which I guess I am one, it has largely been ursurped by that broader umbrella term, climate change. This has got me thinking, is the term global warming still applicable? I’m pretty sure it’s still bandied around in the literature but it doesn’t seem to command the same level of attention, perhaps even acceptance, than it did before. To use an oft-quoted expression there has been a paradigm shift (of sorts). The overly simplistic model of a world becoming steadily and incrementally warmer has been thrown into doubt by the most recent long-term studies which show that whilst there has been an overall temperature increase since measurements began it has been far from consistent. Apparently the latest IPCC report acknowledges this much. The term climate change was in large part a result of a growing awareness of the fact that temperature changes were only one facet of a dynamic earth. In order to better understand the impact of human-induced activity on our external environment we have mainly modelled and monitored our gaseous emissions (H2O, CO2, NOx, CH4 etc) and particulates (smoke, ash and dust). It has been assumed that the key to surviving and perpetuating our existence on this planet is to better understand the interplay between hydrosphere-atmosphere-biosphere-lithosphere i.e. water-air-life-rock. We have intervened, manipulated and exploited all four spheres to some degree but until now our principal concerns have been changes in the atmosphere and to a lesser extent the biosphere. Global warming is one aspect of atmospheric change attributed to greenhouse gas accumulation, whilst climate change encompasses other phenomena like desertification, flooding, tropical storm frequency and severity and even the possibility of negative deviations in temperatures locally or seasonally. 

The paradigm shift has been important because climate change alludes to a greater range of dynamics at play, although it still falls short of the mark. The link to conservation issues like deforestation and loss of ecological diversity is not apparent. This is possibly because of the misconception that changes in the climate affect the biosphere and not vice-versa. Also not apparent are the effects of changes to the hydrosphere. For instance, higher polar temperatures have reduced seasonal ice cover and led to changes in major ocean current circulation. This has implications for heat distribution and feedbacks into atmospheric conditions. Another aspect of the hydrosphere of major concern is the distribution and health of the world’s freshwater. Water pollution is an issue that has been in the public eye for a long while but remains an issue in many parts of the world. Groundwater exploitation is not sustainable in many places and should be a cause for major concern vis-a-vis water security and the potential for human calamity and conflict. So although the term climate change will probably remain in vogue for some time yet it’s lack of specificity will probably limit its use in a future where we are better able to quantify local changes and better understand the dynamic interplay between all aspects of our environment.

In tandem with this thought is the continued relevance of the term sustainability in all its numerous forms and appendages: sustainable development, sustainable utillization, sustainable harvesting etc). In many ways sustainability has come to usurp the word conservation in the last 20 years probably because of the increased realisation that human interference in most instances is unavoidable and that some sort of balance needs to be attained whereby the environment or ecosystem can remain functional whilst we continue to exploit it. Conservation in its most literal form is a hands off approach to maintaining or restoring a natural ecosystem, species or groups of species. At least that’s what the word suggests to me. Sustainability will probably continue to maintain traction for some time yet because of the human consideration. Nevertheless I think the word is also a consequence of our collective sense of conflict when it comes to deciding our place in the world. Only when we can move to a socio-economic situation where we our resources are not limiting will we be able to shift the paradigm. Furthermore we need to see ourselves as being integral to the perpetuation, remediation and creation of present and future environments and ecosystems. If we empower ourselves to act in a way that not only ensures our survival but the continued health and diversity of our planet we can shift the paradigm from sustainability to creativity. We are, after all, great modifiers and not ones for maintaining the status quo.

Who’s Exceptional?

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Who’s the Boss?

Much talk of American exceptionalism which, incidentally, my spell-checker is obviously oblivious to (It would prefer me to use exceptionalness.) Cue Obama’s speech at the UN recently. And much talk of American actually being rather unexceptional (cue Vlad Putin’s exceptional – as in unusual – op-ed in the New York Times recently, the last line of which rather emotively reads: We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.) Which side to take? Well that all depends on your point of view, like everything in life. If that’s not very helpful then please read on and I might just venture an opinion.

A quick look at the facts or apparent facts: the US is the biggest economy on the planet; it is the world’s biggest consumer; it has the world’s biggest military; the world’s biggest military budget; it arguably has the greatest cultural infuence (for better or worse); it contributes the most in global aid although I have no idea of the split between humanitarian and strategic. Uncle Sam is the big dog on the block (yes, that’s me too, or at least the wiser incarnation of my ego, Misha). Does this make the US exceptional? By one definition (www.dictionary.com) exceptionalism is ‘a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm.’ One contraction of the word exceptionalism is exceptional. A few synonyms from the online dictionaries:  superior, uncommon, singular, strange, unnatural, aberrant, anomalous. A further contraction is the word exception which is defined by the same reference resource as ‘an instance or case not conforming to the general rule’ or ‘an adverse criticism, especially on a particular point; opposition of opinion; objection.’

Is there any wonder the uncontracted word evokes so many different responses! To be honest I don’t like the word because of the ambiguity. Whilst no political leader should be foolish enough to declare themselves or their citizens to actually be innately superior to the rest of us in any shape or form the notion that a nation can evade the rules or institutions set up to ‘balance the scales of power’ by virtue of some attribute or other makes most of us baulk. Then again the US is bigger and more capable in so many senses that it is an exception to the general rule, hence the ambiguity. They have greater power to intervene in conflict situations, more influence than most to bring to bear at the negotiating table, more external strategic interests to protect. What Obama and other proponents of US exceptionalism would like us to believe is that the US, by virtue of its size, influence and power, actually has a moral duty to exercise this power for the good of all. Whilst I don’t believe there can ever be a situation that is for the good of all where there are both proponents and opponents in principal there will always be good choices and bad choices, or more likely the best of any number of less-than-perfect resolutions to a situation. US exceptionalism is a double-edged sword: because we are bigger than you we have the means (and hence the ‘right’) to influence your decisions in a manner that we deem to be in our general interests either directly or indirectly, whilst at the same time creating a self-fulfilling expectation that the US will remain in the ascendency for as long as it exists.

As I said I don’t like the word exceptionalism. I would much prefer that the US couched its rhetoric in terms of ‘acting responsibly’ or ‘taking responsibility’. Pure and simple. There would still be arguments and conflicts but at least we wouldn’t have to deal with the notion of superiority.

See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/24/obama-america-is-special.html

In Remembrance of Paul

A few months back I received a call from a contact in Zimbabwe. In itself this was not unusual. I have spent the greater part of my life there (until the age of 30). The lady who was contacting me, Adele, was the mother of an old high school mate, although I hadn’t seen him for many years and we had only corresponded sporadically via Facebook. As it happened I had had more contact with his mum through a society I was a member of in Harare. Adele was an active member of the Prehistory Society. As a graduate geologist she had asked me to speak on one occasion regarding gold mineralisation in tandem with another speaker who was engaged in artisanal mining, much like the ‘ancients’ had been doing for many hundreds of years before written records. Maybe I had first gone along to a society meeting because of Rob, my old geography teacher and close friend of my mum’s who now worked as a consultant archaeologist and historian. I can’t really recall the exact reason, besides which this is all peripheral to my story.

I corresponded with Adele every so often via email when she was keen to pick my brain on one matter or another. I gathered that she had enrolled in a Masters or PhD by correspondence, quite an undertaking for anyone in troubled Zimbabwe. If I were to describe her I would recall her as an unassuming, middle-aged, plainly dressed lady who spoke slowly and deliberately, who exuded an aura of patience and whose smile was genuine and reassuring but she had never had reason to phone outright so I was attentive from the outset.

“Have you heard anything from Paul? I haven’t heard anything from him since he left for Thailand in October (2012).” I hadn’t.

Subsequent to that phone call a community Facebook page, Help Find Paul, was set-up. I kept in contact with Adele and tried to do my part in the search by alerting mutual friends from Zimbabwe. I soon realised how much time had elapsed since those distant high school days. What I knew of Paul’s life since then was mostly second-hand or through the medium of social networking. He had lived in several countries, notably the UK, Spain, Uraguay and Switzerland and apparently spoke four languages: English, German, French and Spanish. He liked snowboarding it seemed and he had worked between Barcelona and Zürich before making an abrupt change and joining the French Foreign Legion earlier last year or the year before. I probably wouldn’t have been alone in thinking this an odd thing to do at this stage of his life, but a few FB friends expressed their admiration and support.

It now seems almost certain that Paul is no longer with us. A mutual friend forwarded me a link to a short article a couple of days ago published in the Bangkok Post which referred to the discovery of human remains on the island of Koh Chang off southern Thailand nearby a nylon rope with a noose slung from the branch of a tree and Paul’s passport in an abandoned bag. Indications were that the body had been there for at least seven months. So what are we to make of this? The obvious conclusion is that Paul took his own life. We cannot be entirely sure of this without any witnesses to his death but I will tell you why I strongly believe that he did. Firstly, Paul’s pattern of behaviour is one with which I can identify: a certain restlessness and inability to stay anywhere for any length of time; drifting between different groups of friends and acquaintances; and most notably a marked discrepancy between what he posted on the internet regarding his experiences in the notoriously harsh conditions in the Legion and what he related to his mother (she was kind enough to share with me the last email he sent her after he abandoned the Legion). The sort of things he posted on FB conveyed a kind of ‘guts-and-glory’ embrace of the training and soldierly camaraderie, whilst in the email to his mum he spoke of his true reasons for deserting:

It was prison, basically – a bunch of guys who don’t want to be there, squabbling, bullying and complaining, in lockdown conditions with an opaque system of rights and rules, and an arbitrary system of punishments. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t fun, but in the end the cons far outweighed the pros…

Taken on its own it doesn’t mean that his was a suicide related to bullying and psychological abuse. In fact it seemed as though he made a fairly clear and definite decision to ‘desert’ as he put it at the beginning but it suggests to me that he was looking desperately for something there, a sense of belonging perhaps, that remained unrequited. It is more telling that he set up an email account with an automated response to the effect that he would get in contact again at the end of his Thailand trip in a year’s time (November this year). I don’t want to speculate endlessly. I don’t know what particular unhappiness Paul was suffering from. I suspect that there are infinite number of possibilities.

I dreamt of Paul a few weeks ago much as I remember him from school: oversized horn-rimmed glasses on his angular-set face; intelligent, sparkling blue-eyes; and most memorably his broad grin which revealed a prominent set of neat white teeth. Like all dreams there was something other-worldly about it and there may have been another long-lost friend present as well. I asked this dream-apparition of Paul where he was and that his mother was concerned as to his whereabouts and well-being. Perhaps he spoke it, perhaps he just conveyed it to me in thought form but he most definitely said that he couldn’t tell me that. I woke up confused. I only ever told two friends of that dream and then with the news of his probable death on the weekend it took on a new significance to me.

First and foremost I am sad that Paul is quite apparently no longer with us, but reflecting on my dream I am also reassured that he is not suffering any physical pain in whatever place he chose to contact me from in my dream. I said that I didn’t wish to speculate and I’m pretty certain that dream revelations have never been taken as prima facie evidence in a modern court of law, but the issue of suicide comes to the fore and is something that I wish to elaborate on. Maybe I could do so ‘in defence of Paul’ or any of the several other friends and family members who have succumbed to this course of action, but that would be presumptuous. What I really do believe is that there are many forms of unhappiness and that some will lead to the ultimate form of self-harm can only be seen as tragic in the context of our human lives. None of us were born wanting to die and the vast majority of us have, whether now or in the past, rejoiced in some of what this life has to offer. What I can only really speak of with any certainty is my own existence and how very unhappy I have been at times as well. I can empathise with Paul but honestly never understand why he may have wanted to discontinue living.

With other cases it’s easier I think: my friend Konrad was a Polish immigrant in South Africa who lost his domineering father, his only family member in the vicinity. After I left the Rhodes University residence and campus we shared reports started to filter back about erratic behaviour, a heavy drinking problem, lewd behaviour and sexual advances towards various women and a spell of internment after an apparent suicide attempt in his car. This was all out of character with the mild-mannered, shy student I had known during my tenure there. But even before I left I could see the cracks opening:  the feeling of being beholden to his deceased father who it seemed demanded that he study only mathematics (he was a professor at another university further east) regardless of his feelings on the subject; and feelings of isolation from his Polish homeland and family. Poor Konrad failed more than one course whilst there and I could tell that he was caught between wanting to appease the memory of his father and abandoning mathematics for another subject. He talked of his love for history. Shortly after his release from a sanatorium he hanged himself by his belt on the campus grounds. I was gutted. I had tried to email him and reassure him but I was ensconced further north at the University of Pretoria under uncannily similar conditions. By the time I emailed after God-knows how long it seems as though he had done the deed.

I think we all feel beholden to those we love and care about. When they die we are left with those expectations and if we fail to achieve them – or more likely, fail in our perception of achievement – then we can feel very down indeed. If that is compounded by estrangement, in my case from my father, feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, frustration and insecurity can batter the psyche. It may even culminate in a threshold being reached from which it feels as if a return to any form of happiness is impossible. These are the demons that I have dealt with, still deal with and which I imagine poor Konrad and countless others have had to cope with as well. Therefore I will not condemn him in my own subjective way because I have an insight into how difficult life probably was for him. He isn’t languishing in a pit of fire unless our creator is a complete sadist (I don’t think he/she/it is).

I know far less about Paul’s state of mind and why he may have done what he did but I don’t see reason for condemnation either. We were good friends once even if we later drifted apart at school and after. He wrote well, had a good appetite for books and reading and was sensitive to what others thought of him and in his actions towards others. He smiled and laughed often. How can such a spirit be condemned in the afterlife? It is impossible I tell you. Furthermore, it seems to me that if he did take his life in that remote forest off the Thai mainland, he did it to avoid causing immediate grief to those he cared about. Perhaps a little part of him wanted to be discovered, otherwise why leave his passport in the bag at the scene? What measure of will power it took to plan and execute such a plan I can only imagine. Others may fall into addiction and self-pity or go out on a bottle of pills or a drug-fuelled binge but he chose another path for which only he would be accountable. Many speak of the guilt that remains after a suicide, in feeling as though they should have done more. I think Paul wanted to minimise such ‘collateral damage’.

Every death of a friend is a tragedy to those who knew them because to be a friend we knew and cared for those things that made them human. In death we lost that which we cared for, however lost that soul may have seemed in life. If only because we are loved must we continue to live as long and lovingly as we possibly can. If in the end some fail in this ambition then we must see it as a failing somewhere, somehow, but that life continues. The world is imperfect; there is much work to be done.

What is this thing called Belief? A Humanist’s perspective.

It is the end of the Easter weekend and the beginning of the northern hemisphere summer (although the temperatures belie it). It is difficult to determine which event is more important to the people of Britain: the notion of summer or Easter, the most essential event of the Christian calendar?

A few days ago I would have unashamedly sat squarely in the summer camp but right now I’m not so sure. In years to come will I recall this winter as being particularly glum and seemingly unending as it does now? I fancy it will blend with the other three consecutive northern winters I have experienced before it. When was the deepest snowfall, the coldest day, the most persistent frost? I won’t be able to say whether it was 2009 or 2013. What I will remember is that during the Easter of 2013 something took hold in my head with regards to the meaning of faith, perhaps even of God (and yes I deign to use a big ‘G’).

Like many others in the modern world I am an occasional Christian: when the occasion suits I declare myself one for the sake of the peace, or more likely because I lack the courage to take the atheist corner. After having not set foot in a church on Easter Sunday for a few years I felt it was time to join the faithful. I chose an old Anglican establishment in the centre of Luton, the English town where I live. I freely admit that it was as much the allure of the old stone church, some 830 years old, with its stained-glass windows and cavernous interior,  as the thought of a charismatic celebration of Christ’s resurrection that drew me there. This was in spite of the fact that I was raised a Catholic and if pressed would label myself one rather than a Christian. Still, the last time I had set foot in a Catholic Mass I found it a little wearisome and disconcerting – the tried and tested hymns sung fairly tunelessly to an organ accompaniment, the responses to the liturgy uttered routinely by some and a forced emphasis by others, perhaps keen to impress upon the congregation the strength of their religious zest.

Amongst the Anglican congregation of St Mary’s I felt a spirit of unity and passion that had been lacking at the other service. It wasn’t the first charismatic service I had been to; I use to go along to an evening Presbyterian service with a friend back in Zimbabwe where there had been much singing and waving of arms and flags, but something crystallized in my mind during this service. Perhaps the environs of the old building appealing to my sentimental self played a part; or perhaps it was the presence of Bishop Richard, the bishop of Bedfordshire, who presided over the service; or the happy faces of the children waving coloured flags to the side of the altar; or the assorted instruments on the other side of the altar – trumpets, guitars and a cello amongst them – giving a joyful harmony to the songs of praise and celebration. I think that word celebration is the one that best sums up the nature of that Easter service. People celebrating a new beginning, and not just the fact that this Easter coincided with the beginning of summer and the psychological notion that warmer weather was imminent. Here were people rejoicing because they could, because the prime intercessor of their faith, Jesus Christ, had died for their sins and risen again to give them a second chance. It was a reaffirmation of their own desire to be good people: good fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Sitting here I’m thinking that perhaps it is easier for those of northern temperate climes to feel this renewal at the end of winter and all that it represents – the coldness, the leafless trees, the feeling of austerity and sombreness.

Reading these words you are probably assuming that I am indeed a Christian, never mind what I may have said about my seasonal worshipping habits. The truth is that I am not, have not been for some time. Perhaps I never was. What bothers me? Besides the usual doubts of someone with a scientific and evolutionary disposition, the Bible itself, principally the Resurrection and Jesus Christ revealed as the Son of God i.e. the essence of Easter and the religious service I was attending. If you see an inherent contradiction it’s not lost on me either! I imagine that like many experiencing the first bitter pangs that come through ‘losing their religion’, and by that I mean those inherited beliefs, written and oral traditions, back then I had to cast aside everything I had been told and ingested, step back and reassess my beliefs. I still didn’t label myself an atheist, an Unbeliever, but by the most literal of definitions I was. Not that I was necessarily uncomfortable with my position; I just felt no need to adjust it from the position of closet doubter. At that time I was living in a fairly conservative society at university in South Africa or at home in Zimbabwe, many of best friends being professed Christians, and I felt it best not to rock the boat.

My best friend Ben was the earliest professed atheist I can remember. His argument against  God was simple but powerful: there are x number of religions in the world, each professing to be the true path to enlightenment – if there really was a God of one faith why would he tolerate such a situation? This is the argument of a rational person and it sat uneasily with me for many years but to the religious zealot his or her belief is paramount, fundamental and all conquering. Given the fullness of time the world will become either an Islamic caliphate, a unified global community of Christian worshippers or something else, depending on their particular brand of religion. Ridiculous as that may seem to many progressive, worldly individuals living in Western nations today, most other Believers (and I use a big ‘B’ here to signify anyone of formal religious affiliation) don’t seem unduly bothered by this, the religious paradox. No, in recent years the pendulum has swung, in the West at least, towards what has been dubbed in some circles as militant atheism. The Unbelievers have stood up and asked the question of the Believers: Why do you believe in God in the face of empirical and scientific evidence, amassed year-on-year? 

I for one stand with the scientific camp. Scientific endeavour underpins all our material advances and much of our understanding of the world around us. Our inherent curiosity compels us to continue to question and to discover. Where the so-called militant atheist camp has overstepped the mark in my mind is in their desire to remove the moral underpinnings of religion and decry them as misguided, naive, or even dangerous. There is a ‘God-shaped space’ in our brains or so I read in a New Scientist magazine edition last year (the God Issue, 17 March 2012). We are predisposed towards belief in supernatural entities. This is backed up by studies, especially with babies and young children; all very interesting stuff. I suppose this is where I want to tie-in my own experience of Easter this year: people believing in something bigger and better than themselves. Jesus of the Gospels was an amazing man even if he wasn’t the definitive, one and only Son of God. His sermon on the mount has been referred to as the first recorded declaration of  Human Rights I read somewhere. Because of who he claimed to be and the nature of his proclaimed mission on Earth he is a controversial figure, but nonetheless enduring. I don’t think we have had a truly inspired discussion on the nature of this man and his legacy between the two camps – the Believers and the Unbelievers. I think it’s time.

A memoir of 3 years in the UK

So I’ve written a memoir and not, I hasten to add, an autobiography! As a friend of mine remarked, “isn’t it a bit early for that sort of thing?” Well quite. All the same it has been quite an interesting couple of years, primarily in England, but punctuated by two trips back to Africa. This is the main narrative time-frame, although I talk of events further back where they tie into present experience.

What inspired me to write this memoir? Several different strands of thought really. Firstly, I am predisposed towards writing anecdotes and commentary, but that hardly makes me stand out now does it?! Still, it wasn’t a huge extrapolation to start joining the blogs, commentary and photographic record into a coherent whole. I would like to call myself a travel writer. Perhaps not in the conventional understanding of the title, but all the same someone who qualifies by virtue of having traveled beyond their sphere of familiarity. But the essence of it is that I have had a great desire to seek an understanding of the world at large, more for my peace of mind than any other reason.

Like many first time writers I imagine, I suffered from a premature dose of enthusiasm and imagined that to get published was just a matter of finding the right publisher and selling my story to them. With any luck they would take charge of the nitty-gritty bits: proof-reading and editorial stuff, typesetting, marketing etc. I ran the usual gamut of publishers recommended by the Artists and Writers Yearbook, emailing sample chapters, synopses and cover-letters in the main but also printing off a few copies and physically mailing them to literary agents of a more traditional inclination. As the weeks and months dragged out I was to come to realise two things. Firstly, traditional publishing pf the sort I have just outlined is difficult. Secondly, memoirs are not half as enticing to the majority of publishers as other forms of literature, fiction being the biggest seller and crime fiction in particular. Actually, a perusal of the shelves of one of the established bookstores – Waterstones or WH Smith – will suggest that life-stories do sell. The only prerequisite is that one has to be famous in some regard: a man or woman of considerable sporting prowess or a pop-star being two obvious ones. I am neither. Thus I did not find myself a publisher but I did discover the world of self-publishing.

The accessibility of the platforms for self-publishing online through the likes of  Lulu.com and Amazon’s KDP have transformed the market by making publishing accessible to everyone. Although this might result in a lowering of editorial standards at least it gives people like me a channel to print and distribute our tales. The print-on-demand facility offered by online publishers like Lulu is a boon, but digital publishing is probably the biggest innovation. Still, one can’t do everything from writing to publishing completely independently and without outside review. I was lucky to have had the editorial input of Judy Brown, a competent proof-reader, who accepted my ridiculously low project tender through the site Freelancer.co.uk. I wasn’t in a position to offer any more than I offered but she did a thorough job all the same. To any aspiring author out there I say this: make it your first and foremost objective to find a good and honest proof-reader to assess your manuscript once you have finished writing it. He or she will do it the world of good not just through correcting grammar and punctuation, but by suggesting where you could say things more concisely, explore a particular idea further or simply to suggest what might be a bias on your part that needs to be reappraised.

That said I will return to the matter of the memoir itself. Once complete, or nearly so, there was the need to decide on a title. After some consideration I decided on one – A Fairly Honest Account of a White African’s Life Abroad. When I first published in July 2012 this was the title of my book. In part I was inspired by the fairly recent TV documentary on the plight of a white Zimbabwean farmer and his family, Mugabe and the White African. Something about the stoic struggles of the White African appealed to my vanity. All the same I was dogged by a sense of doubt. Did something really mark me out as a White African? Did I have a particular identity by virtue of having been brought up in Africa of ethnically European parents? I was after all born in the UK and actually of mixed Western and Mediterranean European ethnicity. I decided that the term was too divisive and ambiguous, with echoes of the past, and I therefore decided to change it several months later. The revised title I decided upon was Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant. I won’t elaborate any further without pasting in my synopsis, as I wrote it for my book in the Amazon bookstore. As follows:

This is a personal, insightful and sometimes entertaining recollection of the author’s adventures and nomadic life in the UK as well as two periods in that other world of his upbringing, Southern Africa. 

Born in Britain to Rhodesian parents at the end of that country’s tumultuous civil war he was raised in a fairly peaceful and prosperous Zimbabwe. The narrative journey encompasses not only the present but the past. He does his best to make an objective assessment of modern Britain whilst elaborating on just what Zimbabwe (and South Africa) means to him, and the conflicting senses of identity and purpose in the homeland of his heart of which he is no longer a citizen.

In his quest for answers on his travels through the UK he surveys the cultural and political landscape of England today, revisits his birthplace in Ealing, and traverses the southwest of England in search of work. Circumstance draws him to his estranged uncle’s abode in the coastal city of Plymouth where the past and present collide unexpectedly.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fairly-Honest-Account-Africans-ebook/dp/B008NAU7VG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1353331975&sr=1-1

I will endeavour to publish my introduction and a sample chapter or two on this blog to give the potential reader a taste of the book. I hasten to add that the book is most likely to appeal to those of a similar background to me: raised in Zimbabwe, although not necessarily white, and living or having lived in the UK and/or South Africa for a period of time. Furthermore, if I have to be honest I would say that the overall tone of the book is reflective rather than jocular or entertaining. I wouldn’t recommend you reading it if you don’t have an interest in history or delving into the human predicament. If this sounds too deep and introspective, fear not. Most of the book is about anecdotal experience and there is some humour too… I think!

A paperback version is also available though Lulu self-publishing (I am currently reviewing  a hard copy in order to approve it for affiliate distribution i.e. Apple bookstore, B&N) and another ebook (in EPUB format). See my author spotlight for links to the book: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/leopassi

Here is preview of the revised cover, as designed by Kamil Pawlik, an independent Polish designer I crowd-sourced:

Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant
Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant

 

TCM and the demise of the Rhinoceros

Not for the first time in the last millennium or more do the five or so species of rhinoceros find themselves under the cosh. I am receiving a spate of petitions informing me of the sobering statistics in South Africa in particular, home to the Southern White Rhino. Year-on-year more are getting poached and the trend suggests that at least as many rhinos will be poached this year as last (c450 animals). The number could even be over 500, depending on demand and the effectiveness of conservation efforts (see graphic below, white rhinos poached between 2007-2011 in RSA)

There are still many more than there were at the turn of the last century when numbers plummeted to several dozen animals in South Africa, which is evidence of their robust nature. The market was then, as it is now, in foreign lands, whose markets for horn have proved equally tenacious, although there have been some changes in attitude over the last century in certain places.

To many of us this seems like an unpleasant sense of déjà vu does it not? Those of us who grew up in Zimbabwe will remember the various rhino conservation programs and the notable activities of individuals like the Rhino Girls who cycled across the continent to raise awareness for the cause. Why is this problem failing to diminish despite all these efforts and why is there so much misinformation, even amongst apparently modern, rational Westerners?

This is not meant to be a research paper and I haven’t backed up every assertion and statement with a reference, but most I have gleaned from the web through relevant organisational websites:

www.savetherhino.org; www.rhinos-irf.org; www.rhinos-irf.org; www.honoluluzoo.org/white_rhinoceros.htm

Other sources have been referenced too and cited where necessary. Having perused these pages I feel I am a little better informed. Like many Westerners I was under the impression that rhino horn was used almost exclusively as an aphrodisiac. Apparently this is not the case according to more one of these sites. Neither is the use of horn in the manufacture of Yemenese dagger handles a significant threat to rhino populations any longer. The major use is in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), allegedly as an anti-pyretic (fever reducer), analgesic (pain killer), anti-cancer medication, and in the prevention of strokes. TCM is not just practised in China but also in neighbouring countries like Vietnam. Vietnamese nationals have been regularly implicated in the illegal trade in horn originating from South Africa.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that TCM has been practised for the better part of three millennia and, as such, many of its practises are strongly entrenched in the cultural and medicinal practises of much of South East Asia. Furthermore, like many traditional medicinal practises there may be grains of truth amongst the myths. One scientific study claims to have shown powdered rhino horn to have some very mild anti-pyretic properties in lab rats when administered at suitably high concentrations (however, the results are disputed by other researchers).

www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/index.php?s=1&act=refs&CODE=ref_detail&id=1320101863

Whilst this may be a point to argue by the medicinal horn-advocates, it should be remembered that there are many existing, sustainable, over the counter equivalents like aspirin which essentially do the same thing, at no harm to the environment. Considering the current black market price of processed rhino horn (between US$20, 000 and $55, 000/kg) I can’t imagine that this use is what is driving the demand. More likely it is as a purported use for more serious life threatening ailments like cancer.

If, like me, you have lived with someone suffering with terminal cancer, you will know firsthand the desperation those persons felt at one time or another in finding an effective palliative medicine (to reduce suffering and pain), notwithstanding the hope of a miracle cure. It is very difficult to be completely objective in such situations, but even here we have to draw a line. My father was afflicted by a malignant brain tumour from 2003 until his death from complications arising from treatment in early 2006. Whilst he suffered acutely, mainly from the side-effects of powerful corticosteroids prescribed him, in his last year of life he conceived of a notion (whose provenance remains a mystery) that an infusion of cobra venom into the tumour itself would cure him of the cancer. We searched online and could find no pharmaceutical medication derived from the said snake venom and, with difficulty, I had to emphasize this several times. Perhaps it was something said once upon a time or a speculation made by one doctor or another, but the point is that the promise of a cure was very real for him. Had there been a complementary medicine derived from snake venom it probably wasn’t the sort of thing you would find online and quite likely very dangerous, unless it had been denatured. However, had it been offered to my father he most likely would have taken it out of desperation and I have little doubt that he would have paid for it, regardless of the cost.

I imagine it is the same for people suffering terminal cancer or other serious malady in traditional Chinese society. When one’s very life is at stake what financial price is too much to pay? But we have to draw a line and adhere to the rational approach to medicine that has advanced the life expectancy and quality of life for people everywhere it is practised effectively. And this includes traditional medicine (TM) too. There are many examples of how TM has been employed effectively, often in a palliative way and in some cases as a cure. (St John’s wort springs to mind, used extensively in European TM apparently?). Where proven to be effective many TMs have been incorporated into pharmaceuticals, BUT only after having proven to be safe and effective through rigorous and controlled clinical trial testing.

Returning to the subject of rhino horn and its use as an anti-cancer treatment, the denials come from both within and from without the TCM practitioners. Two authoritative quotes I found on the site rhinoconservation.org:

“There is no evidence that rhino horn is an effective cure for cancer and this is not documented in TCM nor is it approved by the clinical research in traditional Chinese medicine.” – Lixin Huang, Statement opposing the use of rhino horn in medicines by the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

“To all this, I say that something that works for everything usually works for nothing. I also say that something that has been used for hundreds or thousands of years does not make it right.” – Dr. Albert Lim Kok Hooi, oncologist based in Kuala Lumpur, A horny story

Considering that rhino populations are in such a perilous position, the question has to be asked “how much can the use of rhino horn in TCM be accommodated considering the threat to the survival of the species?” The rational answer is that it cannot. But is the world quite as rational as we would hope? Consider that the UK market for herbal, homeopathic and aromatherapy products stood at a not inconsiderable £188 million in 2010.

www.mbdltd.co.uk/Press-Release/Complimentary-Medicines.htm

Worldwide the alternative or complementary medicines must be over a billion sterling, by conjecture? Ok, so I concede that many of these products are regulated and authorised by government agencies before being allowed to go to market. However, my understanding is that they only have to prove safe for human consumption, the substance being administered at the discretion of the TM or CM practitioner and its effectiveness not clinically proven. The efficacy of many of these medicines is assumed by consumers because of the perceived integrity of the TM cultures, their tradition and longevity.

The fact of the matter is that within cultures we place a great deal of emphasis on human life (contrary to the practises of wars of ideology or conquest). If it were scientifically validated that rhino horn was indeed the elixir of life the hapless rhinoceros would probably be eliminated tomorrow. If we were somehow able to preserve the species, against the odds, at the very least there would be some sort of highly regulated dispensation of the stuff, probably at mind boggling costs. Certainly there would be great financial incentive to start farming the pachyderms to meet the enormous demand. But I ask you to pause for a second… rhino horn is selling for mind boggling amounts which strongly suggests that it is being peddled as this very elixir of life. Interestingly it is not just criminal syndicates looking to cash in on illegal poaching and rhino horn smuggling operations but legitimate businesses too, as a recent expose by Time magazine revealed.

Chinese nationals have allegedly invested, beginning some five or so years ago, in a multi-million dollar project to start a rhino-harvesting project on China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea, in contravention of CITES. Despite a cover that it is to be a tourist-oriented safari park called  Africa View, there was no evidence of this objective when visited by a local journalist in 2006. The sixty rhinos penned there were being kept in concrete pens with not a tourist in sight. A business portfolio published by Longhui, the company investing in the project, and a subsidiary of an arms manufacturing group, states the real objectives: to produce various rhino horn products, including detoxification tablets, for retail in the TCM market. Sales revenues are projected to be of the order of US $60 million per annum if all goes to plan.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2075283-4,00.html

One might applaud this approach as being better than the poaching and slaughter that is occurring elsewhere. I have found myself enticed by this approach, initially anyway. Is it feasible? Well, certainly none of the web sites referenced above advocate it in any way, most citing the strict CITES regulations on the trade in rhino horn which clearly rule out commercial trade in, or refining of, rhino horn in any way whatsoever. I can only assume that the commercial aspects have been debated at length by those involved in formulating CITES agreements. I can only assume that their collective wisdom has been brought to bear in the arguments for and against farming the animals for sustainable harvesting of horn. Personally I can’t imagine it would bode well for the rhinoceros anyhow, considering the size of the market and the apparent demand, coupled with the obvious difficulties in scaling up the farming of the beasts to a level necessary to satisfy this market.

The unfortunate truth is that the construction of the farm on Hainan may well have contributed to the surge in demand for rhino horn in the last five years or so. There is a corollary in the story of elephant conservation and the efforts of CITES legislation. I read of the effects of the brief lifting of the CITES ban on the trade in ivory in the 1990s which permitted several African governments to sell off considerable ivory stockpiled from animals who died natural deaths or from regulated hunting/culling operations. It prompted the swift emergence of a number of ivory carving operations in South-East Asia (mainly China I think) to process this ivory, but which also boosted demand and led to an upswing in poaching operations shortly thereafter, a trend which perpetuated for several years I recall reading. Given the robust status of the elephant in some regions, like the Hwange National Park in my home country of Zimbabwe, it is possible that some sort of long-term regulated trade might just be entertained. The problem is that an increase in the demand for ivory, like rhino horn, affects elephants everywhere and there are marginal and fragile populations which are very sensitive to interference.

It seems as if a “hands off” conservation approach coupled with strong condemnation of anyone involved in the illegal trade of horn, indeed criminalising it, is the best approach for those countries hosting existent rhino populations. But this is not enough I’m sure you will agree and we need to appeal to the market itself; those practising TCM and more especially those who consume rhino horn derivatives for whatever ailment. It is perhaps heartening to read that the issuing of a Fatwa (a strict Islamic edict) by the Grand Mufti in Yemen, at the time they became a CITES signatory in 1997, saying it was against the will of Islam to kill rhinos for dagger handles, that the practise was largely abandoned and alternatives used (water buffalo horn for instance).

www.honoluluzoo.org/white_rhinoceros.htm

This shows the effect that someone in power, someone respected by the people, can have in effecting a major shift in an a formerly entrenched cultural practise or belief. We have to appeal to the leaders of China, Vietnam, Laos and others in the region that may be involved in the consumption of horn products as advocated by TCM. To this end there is a petition penned by Africa Geographic appealing to the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, H E Mr Nguyen Manh Hung, of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, to help implement a nation-wide education campaign in his country, and to produce “a legally binding Memorandum of Understanding between South Africa and Vietnam aimed at combating the trade, sale and use of rhino horn (which) must be signed and implemented without delay.”

Petition post-script: In South Africa a rhino is brutally killed every 22 hours. There is no time to waste!

www.thepetitionsite.com/1/africa-geographics-stop-killing-rhinos-petition/

Certainly a similar appeal must be made to those in authority in China, and ratcheted up until they feel obliged to act.

I would like to live in a world where sustainable utilisation and an appreciation for biodiversity becomes universal. If this were the case right now the market for rhino horn would dissipate for the simple reason that it is threatening the very existence of discrete groups of animals. I think it’s probably fanciful to believe that there could be such an abundance of animals that we could entertain the harvesting of horn from wild animals for whatever reason, but as an ideal we should consider it. Would it be any different to wearing leather if utilising the animal horn or hide? Or different to many of the CMs presently out there, harmless but without proven curative or palliative effects, if consumed?

The waters have been muddied by the findings that there may be a mild, but discernible anti-pyretic effect induced by a sufficiently concentrated infusion of horn extract. Never mind that the studies were conducted using lab rats and the levels required to have an equivalent effect in humans were not determined by the researchers. Most probably they are impractically high. Never mind that the effects are mild and short-lived. It is important to ensure that these findings are understood by the public in this context so that they cannot be used for the purposes of propaganda by profit-seeking healers or criminal entities involved in the illegal trade. The future of these irreplaceable and awe-inspiring beasts depends on it.

UPDATE 26-01-2013:

I am very sad to report that the figure for total rhinos poached in South Africa in 2012 is reported at 668 animals, substantially higher than the projection on my graph at top (c500) (as reported at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20971182). Already 32 animals have been poached in the country since the beginning of the year (including 18 in the Kruger NP alone) (http://www.news24.com/Green/News/Rhino-poaching-numbers-on-the-rise-20130123).

Reflections on Population and Fertility in the UK

I am a self-professed science geek (not to be confused with the “techno” variety) but with a curiosity that extends into various other categories. I enjoy scientific magazines most of all, but one can never get too far from the human interest perspective, otherwise it becomes dull. As it was, it was a National Geographic magazine special entitled “Population 7 Billion” which caught my attention one particular morning at my local library (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/01/seven-billion/kunzig-text). I expected it to reinforce my perceptions of population distribution and growth i.e. there are too many people just about everywhere and these populations are inevitably expanding too fast, whether through migration or natural reproduction.

I was fascinated to read that the world’s population growth rate actually appears to be slowing faster than expected. We have been rapidly approaching the birth of the planet’s 7 billionth inhabitant (he or she may already have arrived), yet the brakes are slowly being applied: “the UN projects that the world will reach replacement fertility by 2030” it is stated. It is speculated that world population growth would probably continue for another quarter of a century at least due to the huge swell of adolescents moving up the population pyramid.

However, the present decline in birth rates is considered “mind boggling” by the director of the UN Population Division, Hania Zlotnik although I doubt that the comments of demographers like Hania Zlotnik really filter through to the subjective mindset of the average non-policy-making citizen of planet Earth. Ask the average man (or woman) in the street whether or not he (or she) thinks there are too few or too many people on the planet and it’s a sure bet what the answer’s going to be. Yet, to observe the situation at the scale of a nation or region portrays a very different scenario. Take England and Wales for instance, the stats for which can be gleaned from the website of the Office for National Statistics, http://www.statistics.gov.uk/hub/population.

If the figures are to be believed  the fertility rate of women in Europe (the number of children borne per woman over her lifespan) languishes well below the replacement rate (the number of children required to replace her and her partner and maintain a stable gross population): 1.4 versus 2.1. According to figures on the ONS site, the last female cohort in the UK population haveing a FR > 2.1 was from 1948 i.e. the generation of women born that year. They reached the end of their reproductive lives in 1993 (age 45); the trend for successive cohorts thereafter has been downward (see fig 1.). Note that the upper trend terminates at the 1964 cohort. This is last cohort to have completed their childbearing for which there is available data (up to 2009). The data trends are similar throughout most of Europe.

Average number of live children born, England & Wales, at ages 30 & 45 (credit ONS)

So it’s obvious that if Europe remained a closed system without migration to and from its borders, its population would, with time, diminish. Following naturally is the question of whether this would be a good situation, or a bad situation?

This must surely be viewed in light of what criteria we attach to the word “good”. Quality of life, access to education, healthcare and social welfare are all part of the equation we are familiar with and would want to perpetuate in some form or another. Usually this is tarried to economics and the state of government finances. The situation today is weighted favourably towards countries like Britain which have a strong currency, can afford to out-source primary industry and manufacturing to a large degree, import the finished goods and sell them back to us with a considerable mark-up. Hence the economy of countries like the UK become service oriented, which means we can indulge in consumerism, the arts, science, knowledge and technological advancement. The notion is that such things feed back into the equation and perpetuate, if not reinforce, the primary position. This is all good and well provided that the “things”, the services and institutions, maintain their productivity on the one hand, and the export economies don’t reduce supply or become too expensive in their provision of manufactured goods on the other.

It is my guess that the latter is unlikely to happen for a good while yet. The factories are there and the resources have not yet been plundered entirely (are we not only now entering entering peak oil?). In fact, as I write, it occurs to me that the question of global population is unhelpful. It doesn’t really say much at all about what it means to be a person at a particular location in time; their quality of life, their aspirations, their opportunities. After all, of the state of Texas were as densely populated as New York, the author of the NG special states, it could encompass the population of the entire globe. Not that we would want that of course, but the quality of life of the average New Yorker is not all that bad, from a New Yorker’s perspective. But we don’t all want to be New Yorkers, nor can the world support a global population of such inhabitants. However, it serves to illustrate a point, if only by alluding to an extreme.

There seems to be a contradiction, however, between the data and reality. I speak somewhat subjectively, through my experience of living and working in the UK, and my speculation pertains to the situation here. The baby-boomers are moving into the age of retirement, the population is fairly static, yet unemployment is rising and specifically, youth unemployment is at an all-time high. As I am to understand it, over a million young men and women between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed in the UK. This could be put down to a lack of initiative shown by these people, so say those of a cynical disposition. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but it is a minor truth.

A major truth is that the basic service jobs (the one’s that must by necessity employ a good proportion of your labour force: 30%? 50%?) are not exactly abundant. (anyone who has perused the Gumtree, Reed, Monster Jobs, Jobsite and the many other job pages can testify from the stats feedback i.e. commonly dozens, sometimes a hundred + applicants to compete with). London stands out as a possible exception as it does on so many indicators due to its size and the positive feedback mechanisms generating further growth in its economy and job provision. But my anecdotal experience in the south-west – Plymouth, Bristol and Swindon – was a bit more grim. In my experience it also far easier to find work as a casual employee than a permanent. The flexibility suits many people e.g. those with more than one job, mothers with children etc, but probably gives a false picture of the overall employment situation. Against this backdrop are businesses becoming more streamlined, more efficient, less people-intensive? I can’t answer that, but I suspect that is a factor.

It could be tentatively suggested that we are entering a period, perhaps a sustained one, in the UK and most other Western nations of low real growth, as indicated by GDP and per capita income, married with moderate to high unemployment. Couple this with problems in public sector finances and oft-toted “efficiency savings” by respective governments, increased costs of living and attendant loss of savings, what impact could this have on demographics? Most likely family size will be increasingly constrained by family income and what assistance the state is prepared to give. Inflation, higher VAT and other expenses have hit family incomes, this is no secret. Likewise, welfare payments are unlikely to bridge the gap and for middle-income families, increasingly less attainable. If economic indicators are a major factor in fertility and conception rates then the current downturn mitigates against any change in their gross downward trajectory over the last half century.

But the picture is more complicated than at first glance. A trend that has emerged in the last twenty years can be seen in the graph below (fig. 2):

Figure 2: Relative changes in age-specific conception rates, England and Wales, 1990-2009 (credit ONS)

It is obvious that women are choosing to have children at an increasingly older age, with the greatest increase in the 40 + age group. However, these changes are relative, not absolute. They don’t tell the observer if the actual increase in fertility of woman over 30 compensates for the slight decline in the lower groups. A similar but more informative graph is shown in fig. 3,  comparing the fertility rates in terms of conceptions per 1000 women in each  reproductive year (consecutive years between 15 and 45 years of age) at four different times: 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2009 (most recent data).

Figure 3. Age Specific Fertility Rates for select intervals (Data from ONS)

By integrating the areas under the respective curves one should get a cumulative fertility rate for the year in question. It is obvious that the curves have flattened and skewed towards the right with time i.e. towards older women. The flattening reveals that peak age-specific fertility rates (shown here as live births/1000 women at age x) have fallen drastically between 1970 and 2009 (by 1/3 from ~180 to 120). The peak reproductive age group has also shifted from 24 yrs to 30 yrs.

One other point to consider when talking of fertility rates are terminations as a proportion of total conceptions. I am quite staggered by the data: 21% of all conceptions in 2009 (~900, 000) were terminated by legal abortion. That’s almost 190, 000 pregnancies terminated, of which about 40, 000 are in the under 20 age-group. Half of them occur in the 20 – 29 year age-group. This is the data which jumps out at me although there is plenty more to be found on the sheets which can be downloaded from the ONS website.

On the question of migration I have read (once again anecdotal) that migrant fertility rates soon fall in line with those of the host country (another contradiction of popular perception?). There is more data on the ONS site that I haven’t had the chance to peruse.

An article of anecdotal interest is one I read in an Economist earlier this year (which one I can’t remember off the top of my head). The topic under discussion was one of “assortive mating”, a phenomenon which is increased substantially over the last half-century i.e. the percentage of degree-educated men procreating with degree-educated women. This probably has as much to do with the fact that the percentage of women with Bachelor degrees today (in the West? Or just the UK?)  is on a par with men, whilst 40 years ago, the percentage of women with Bachelors was a paltry 9%. So educated men and women should have a fair chance of meeting and mating. However, the fertility rate of such women is below the replacement rate: only 1.6. For high school drop-outs, by comparison, the rate is 2.4.

Ok, so it’s obvious that education equals lower fertility in Western women, and degree-holders are not a self-sustaining subset of the female population. Once again, lets consider what were to happen if this was a closed system. Essentially, given sufficient time the system (read “population”) could sustain itself, perhaps even grow, but it would be increasingly dependent on the progeny of the drop-outs to grow up, get a degree, and fill those job vacancies requiring degrees, because the degreed subset is unsustainable (FR = 1.6). One might be tempted to say that the gene-pool becomes diluted by less-desirable individuals, if intellectual achievement is considered a proxy for the possession of “intelligent genes”. There is probably some truth in this, and it must be some cause for concern. Of course, the intelligentsia are a class which draw on individuals from all backgrounds, so this picture is a simplification.

Food for thought I hope. Comments and discussion most welcome.

Bob Dylan in Concert, 11 October, MEN Arena, Manchester

About a month ago I splashed out on a ticket for a concert in Manchester. The face value of the ticket was £60, but I paid a further £10 in “card handling fees.” Tack on the costs of transport and accommodation, not an inconsiderable sum, but considering the headline act would be none other than Bob Dylan, supported by the distinguished Mark Knopfler and his band as an opening act, it was an outlay I was happy to make.

September had been a good month from a financial perspective, probably my best since arriving in the UK in ’09. I felt enabled; besides which, I had missed out on so much of the mainstream summer entertainment – the outdoor festivals and concerts – that I almost felt obliged to attend a big name event. Did I have any reservations? I did. A couple of months earlier I had worked with a blues/folk musician on a landscaping job in north London. I’ve checked out his band on YouTube and they’re okay, good enough anyway for me to take Francis’ opinion seriously. “Has Dylan been an influence?” I asked him.

“Of course, but it’s a pity he still insists on playing his old stuff. His voice isn’t what it was and he’s just spoiling them” he replied, somewhat to my consternation. He was playing at Finsbury Park in the capital that weekend and I half-hoped that I could scrape together the funds to attend. I couldn’t and I didn’t. Another member of the team, Bodie, had attended and I eagerly anticipated his verdict the following Monday. Alas, the young man had been in a state of insobriety and couldn’t enlighten me on the calibre of the great troubadour’s performance.

Fast forward four months or so and it seemed as though my prayers had been answered. Dylan was returning to Europe on a whistle-stop tour starting in Dublin, thence to Glasgow, before sweeping down southward to Bournemouth. The last UK venue before the show headed to the continent appealed to me because I have family there. However, seeing that the tour was stopping off in Manchester, at the MEN Arena no less, I was inclined to change my mind. It was at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, now the Radisson Hotel, that Dylan had famously gone electric after opening with an acoustic set. He had been riled and booed, but nonetheless persisted with characteristic obduracy; the performance came to be seen as a watershed moment in contemporary music. One can read about it on numerous sites and commentary pages on the web with particular emphasis on the anguished cry of  “Judas” from a young Keith Butler, to which Dylan retorted, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”

With the momentous events of yesteryear in mind I booked a ticket for the MEN Arena performance on Monday, October 10th, 2011. At the last minute I secured a coach ticket to and from the city. Despite being unable to print my ticket and almost failing to make my connection in Birmingham as a result, I arrived in a murky Manchester around midday on the 10th. Undecided on when to make the return journey (later in the evening or the following day) I wandered into the city centre, intrigued by the wonderful architecture, and stumbled upon a tourist information bureau. “What is there to see in the way of cultural attractions?” I asked a young lady behind a desk. She referred me to an older woman who punched a URL into a desktop monitor with painful deliberation. What she retrieved I forget, but the city map she gave me proved far more useful, and the suggestion that I might like to visit the Lowry Gallery near the Salford Quays.

At first mention the name Lowry meant nothing to me. When it was pointed out that he had made his name painting the early 20th century industrial landscape of Manchester I large gong sounded in my head. My mother had had a Lowry print in her study when I was growing up. As it was, the exhibition at the Lowry gallery was fascinating. I tagged onto a small group following an animated guide who conveyed her love of the artist through an enthralling zigzag march across the gallery halls. There was the original of my mother’s print – a busy street imposed upon a bland background of factories, but the contrast being the key. I hadn’t realised the breadth of his work, nor the controversy and ambiguity that much of it aroused, especially his drawings; drawings of androgynous individuals, girls and boys in each other’s attire, oddly anthropomorphic cats and dogs set amongst his human subjects, and always a sense of contradiction or conflict tacitly implied.

By all accounts he was a loner who had made his name by being unconventional; a man who turned the judgemental gaze of society back upon itself. Some drew back in disgust, yet most took another look and realised that the mirror-view was not quite so deplorable. Indeed, his work was by turns humorous (take his painting of the cripples and amputees mingling with ordinary folk in the park), testimonial (his pictures of the crowds of men leaning forward in anticipation as they congregate upon the football stadiums), and always insightful, even when the subject matter was the factory-urban landscape laid bare.

Perhaps it was fitting that I was in the city to listen to another man who courted controversy and shook the existing establishment so profoundly through his musical endeavours. In many ways Dylan and Lowry aren’t so different. Both men grew up, at least initially, in urban settlements profoundly influenced by human activity: Dylan in the mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, and Lowry in sprawling Manchester. These early impressions of blighted landscapes may have set the stage for one or either artist, striving to find a poetic or artistic dimension to the drabness of industry sprawl and gaping holes from which ore was extracted. Will Lowry be remembered as a protest artist, like Dylan, who was acclaimed as a leading, albeit reluctant, voice in the civil rights movement in America? Probably not, although he may have been, but in a different sort of way.

Intriguingly, at the time I was in Manchester to hear Dylan, he had kicked up a storm of controversy back home in the US, through the subject matter of his latest exhibition of artwork, The Asia Series. Many, if not all, of his pieces have turned out to be copies of photographs, some dating back a century or so. He has not, apparently, violated any copyright of the images in question. Assuming that this has been done deliberately, and such a “trick” would appeal very much to the sensibilities of the artist, why did he not accredit the photographers in his reproductions? Perhaps that was the point. It’s quite likely that the curators of the gallery were unaware of this imitation artwork when they inaugurated the exhibition. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of authenticity, the “aesthetic ideal” and whether it even matters whether one is original.

But this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about, the musician who led the countercultural revolution and spoke up most defiantly against conformity. But then again, if everyone embraces non-conformity, does that not become conformity in itself? Perhaps it is an indictment of Western perceptions of the East. Could one honestly expect to find that silk-gowned woman in the painting “Opium”, clearly modelled on a photograph by early 20th century photographer Léon Busy, in latter-day Japan or China? I don’t know, but I imagine it unlikely. Whatever the verdict, he had courted controversy once again, and I dare say Lowry himself would have given a wry smile and a nod of acknowledgement.

As for the performance itself, it was a disappointment. I found a review on the website citylife.co.uk by Neal Keeling, who writes: “Bob Dylan arrived and shook the place up. Dressed all in black and snarling from the start he looked and sounded like a survivor from the Alamo.” Yes, and no. It was far punchier than Knopfler’s lyrical Celtic-inspired compositions, but it was too loud (more than one comment on the aforementioned review to this effect). From where I sat in the upper tier of block 213 his voice was lost in the clashing instrumentals. Was this intended to be an affirmation of his ’66 gig, where he went defiantly electric? His opening number, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, was disharmonious, the words indiscernible until it came to the punch-line of the chorus. Three tracks later “Tangled up in Blue” was similarly far removed from the original and, quite frankly, awful. Sure he has the right to sing them his way, but the question remains, why? Perhaps I should have done my homework and listened to the critics like Francis or perhaps gazed at a few You-tube videos of recent performances. Many of us walked out of the show (I after Highway 61 revisited), whilst others whistled and applauded and obviously enjoyed themselves.

For me to walk out is unusual. I’m one of those who try to put myself in the artist’s shoes and empathise with him or her. To walk out is insensitive and offensive. However, here was a man who so evidently delights in doing things his way, via his interpretation, regardless of the opinion of his audience that I did away with such self-imposed notions. The only song that had any merit to my mind had been one I hadn’t heard before, “Things Have Changed”. A perusal of his discography reveals it to be a more recent release (’07) which would explain why it sounded fresher and less contrived than his older stuff.

So, for what it’s worth, I’ll give you my opinion. To be a musician or artist is to create something; perhaps for its own sake, perhaps only for the satisfaction of the creator, but when displayed or performed in a public space it asks to be evaluated, to be judged. In taking a beautiful ballad like “Tangled up in Blue”, “spat out” as Mr. Keeling puts it, he defiled the original recording; the recreation was ugly. Perhaps that is even more pertinent for “Simple Twist of Fate”, the recorded version of which is wistful and nostalgic, whilst the Arena performance is too jaunty and completely indifferent to the original sentiments.

On my walk back to the Aurora Hotel, incidentally managed by a high school friend from Harare, my hometown in Africa, I passed under the alluring bright lights of uptown Manchester and reflected that there was far more to this city than could possibly be taken in on a trip like this. I had failed to find the spirit of musical revolution that Dylan had evoked 45 years ago (yes, 45 years!), but to label him “Judas” would be unjust. Not far away in the shadow of St Peter’s Square, I had earlier set eyes upon a small, tented encampment of those protesting against the global financial system and advocating reform in banking and corporations. Whilst I stood there a man called Mike had approached me and asked if he could help. “What are you standing for?” I had asked him.

“I’m just fed up,” he had replied without being specific, and in his eyes I sensed his frustration, perhaps a hint of resignation? He looked like a man who needed to hear the words of a prophet. A generation ago many would have pointed to Dylan as that prophet, but when I mentioned to Mike why I was there he only raised his eyebrows ever so slightly before turning away and muttering something about returning to the camp. “Find us on Facebook and support the cause” was his parting declaration. I didn’t, but the “Occupy” movement swiftly gained momentum, grabbing the headlines in the process. But who is their voice? Perhaps we need a latter-day Dylan or Lowry, to inspire and deride the status quo, to set us stomping off fervently in a definite direction. I’ve no doubt he (or she) is out there somewhere; they always will be I fancy. They just weren’t in Manchester that evening of the 8th of October, 2011.

certiores petere, appetere edoceri (seek to inform; seek to be informed)

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