7 Photos from Ethiopia

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1 – Moving goods in Addis Ababa.

2 – Street performer Addis Ababa.  A crowd of about 30 people had gathered to watch this guy show off his football skills.  He seemed to be making a reasonable amount in tips too.

3 – After reaching camp in the Simien Mountains I went for a walk.  I climbed up a rocky hill and found these two lads sitting on a rock watching their goats on the plain below.  I’m not sure who was more surprised by the encounter.  Like many Ethiopian children they were trained to ask for pens, money, and whatever they could get.  I didn’t have anything to give them (and tried not to encourage a begging culture).  They seemed happy enough to watch themselves on a couple of videos and photos I took.  I let them take a couple of photos themselves and they were delighted to look at their skills.  Unfortunately it’s hard to know what kind of future they will have.  Child labour  accounts for a large amount of the agricultural workforce.  The tiny mountain village where these two boys lived was slated to be be demolished with the villagers moved to a town.  Hopefully there might be an opportunity for them to go to school there.

4 – My hotel was across the road from the Bus Station market and near one of the gates into the ancient Old City.  For some reason it seems to be only women who carry items on their heads.  They must have very strong necks – I saw some women struggle to lift some bags but then plonk them on their head and saunter off.

5 – Market day in Lalibela.  Lalibela market is down from the town with an avenue of stalls and shops leading into a big bowl filled with cattle, goats, and donkeys.

6 – This passenger bus was ferrying passengers through the Simien Mountains.

7 – On a Sunday the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are filled with worshippers and pilgrims.  As far as I know the men and women worship separately.

The Big Book Review

Okay basically this post (and possibly the next one) is because I’ve built up a pile of books I have to post reviews of but have been short of time.  If I get time I might expand on some of them at a later date (highly unlikely!).  So here is a selection of short reviews.

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Seek – Denis Johnson – 9/10
This is a wide-ranging collection of essays by author and poet Johnson. The writing is beautifully fluid and the events captivating. The extraordinary and sometimes horrific events in Africa (“The Civil War in Hell” and “An Anarchist’s Guide to Somalia”) are stand-out pieces.

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Enemies, A History of the FBI – Tim Weiner – 8/10
An engrossing history of the FBI which demonstrates that US intelligence agencies have been crossing breaking laws and encroaching on civil rights from their earliest days. Understandably the Hoover years take up a large chunk of this book as he sought to impose his unscrupulous character on the organisation he dominated. The reader is left wondering if the FBI’s successes outweigh its failings.

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The Battle – Paul O’Connell – 7/10
Paul O’Connell’s autobiography follows his career from his early days as a swimmer and golfer to his huge successes as a rugby player. While the victories are retold in vivid detail the violence, injuries, and heavy drinking leave a slightly empty feeling. A book that would discourage many a parent from sending their kids to a rugby playing school.

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House of Bush, House of Saud – Craig Unger – 7/10
This book provides a good overview of US and Saudi relations during the period around the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unger rightly points out the corrosive effects of oil interests on Bush (senior and junior) policies. However he is on shakier ground trying to link these policies directly to 9/11 (Saudi Wahhabist ideology taken to its ultimate nihilistic conclusion was the real culprit). Unger almost veers into conspiracy theory mode in his descriptions of Bin Laden family members leaving the US immediately after 9/11.

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The Rás – Tom Daly – 8/10
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book about Ireland’s premier cycle race turned but it turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Starting in 1953 the Rás offered Irish riders a chance to get tour experience. The organisation was basic to put it mildly with the mostly amateur riders requiring unbelievable toughness to complete the race. Their is also political intrigue (and sometimes violence) as the all-Ireland Rás competed with the 26 county Irish Cycling Federation.

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Bridges of Dublin – Annette Black and Michael Barry – 8/10
This book does exactly as it says – it describes the history of all of the Dublin bridges that cross the river Liffey. This book is also full of interesting photos including one showing that the Richmond Tower at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham was once situated by the Liffey but was moved to its present location brick by brick to widen the south quays.

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Inside Team Sky – David Walsh – 8/10
Walsh, the journalist who played a crucial role in exposing Lance Armstrong’s cheating, spent a season embedded with Team Sky. Walsh’s time gives a fascinating look into how the world’s top cycling team operates. However Walsh’s conclusion that Team Sky are free from doping has been called into question by subsequent revelations.

Endurance – Quick Review

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Rick Broadbent  China.png

Bloomsbury (2016), 320 pages

A present

Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek is a great biography of one of the world’s greatest distance runners.  Endurance’s strength lies not only in Broadbent’s retelling of Zátopek’s life story but also in the author’s painting of the historical and personal background to the great runner’s life.

Zátopek lived through World War II and the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.  Zátopek was a socialist and his ability to train as an athlete while a member of the army helped his progress.  Broadbent also shows the dark side of communism as many Czech individuals suffered as badly under communist rule as they did under Nazi occupation.  For most of his career Zátopek trained without a coach and was one of the first athletes to use interval training on a regular basis.  Zátopek’s gregarious and generous personality was seen as an antidote to the enigmatic “Flying Finn” Paavo Nurmi and the more restrained upper class British runners.  Zátopek’s presentation of one of his Olympic gold medals to the Australian runner Ron Clarke is perhaps the best well known example of his generosity.

Zátopek’s use of (often brutal) interval training methods set him apart from his contemporaries.  He seemed to be in tune with his body at a time when some top athletes engaged in dangerous (and in modern terms almost comical) pre-race practices such as not drinking water or eating enough.  Tactically Zátopek knew when to pace himself and when to put the hammer down.

 

Broadbent does raise the moral ambiguity of Zátopek’s relationship with his only coach Jan Haluza.  Haluza was jailed by the StB (the Czechoslovakian secret police) and it is possible that Zátopek could have done more to help his former mentor.  However, Zátopek, although a socialist, was not a mindless ideologue.  His value to Czechoslovakia on the international stage enabled him to resist overt meddling in athletics by the State.  During the Prague Spring in 1968 Zátopek actively opposed the Soviet invasion and made anti-Soviet broadcasts for a resistance radio station.  It is easy to be critical of Zátopek but he was faced with political and moral dilemmas that most modern athletes (or indeed most people) never have to grapple with.

Of course Zátopek’s times are slower than contemporary athletes but his physical strength (at 72kg he was a lot heavier than the modern African runner), mental toughness, unique training methods, and ultimately, his moral character set him apart from most athletes.  Zátopek is the only person to win the 5,000m, 10,000m, and the marathon in the same Olympics – a feat that will possibly never be equalled.  He also broke 18 world records (including eight in the space of six weeks in 1951!) and won a total of nine major athletics medals.

Half of a Yellow Sun – Review

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Fourth Estate (2009 – first published 2006), 448 pages

Charity Shop, €1

Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction Winner 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun is an extraordinary novel.  The book manages to explore the clash between different visions of society whilst still maintaining a fast-paced plot.  Adichie explores urban and rural divides, tribal and national clashes, pan-African nationalism and localism, colonial and post-colonial tensions, gender issues, and class conflicts.  Despite the depth of Adichie’s vision it never feels forced.  This is because she can see multiple sides to people.  Her characters are fully formed individuals not simply one-dimensional types created to promote an ideological point of view.  Some of her most sympathetic characters end up doing terrible things.  Adichie never justifies such acts but the horrific events that culminated in the doomed Biafran War make the reader question how they would act if their lives were torn apart by such brutal violence.

Misrule by elite sections of Nigerian society is a running theme in Half of a Yellow Sun.  From the oppression of British colonial rule, to the corruption of independent Nigeria’s rulers, the brutality of the Nigerian military during its 1966 coup and support of the murderous pogroms against the Igbo people, to the callousness of the Biafran military leadership in the final months of the war.  The dreams of a bright independent future were dashed by the desire for money, political control, and military power.

Related Links

History Ireland – The Forgotten War.  An Irish perspective on the Biafran War.

 

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Quick Review

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Khaled Hosseini خالد حسینی Afghanistan

Bloomsbury (2007), 432 pages

Charity Shop, €1

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a comprehensive journey through modern Afghan history from the end of monarchy, through Communist dictatorship, the anarchy of the warlords, and the brutal rule of the Taliban.  It is the personal lives of Mariam and Laila, and where they intertwine that takes centre stage in A Thousand Splendid Suns.  There is hope and love in the novel but there is also great violence and brutality.  Misrule by men leads to horrific abuses of the Afghan people.  It is women who suffer most.  Even women who are not directly caught up in the martial violence fall victim to the creation of a culture where women can become the property of men and be forced under their physical, economic, and sexual control (and in some cases women are complicit in this oppression).  The real fight in A Thousand Splendid Suns is for the most basic women’s rights.  Despite the decreasing freedoms of Mariam and Laila they  create as much autonomy as they can through acts of rebellion, their imagination, and the love for each other and their children.  Hosseini’s novel shows that a person’s life is not defined its end but how it is lived.

8/10

One of Us – Review

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Åsne Seierstad 

Virago Press (2015 – first published 2013), 544 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €3

It’s been ages since I posted any reviews.  I’ve been very busy with work and a few other things that have taken up my time/tired me out!  Hopefully I’ll manage to post a bit more regularly in the coming months.

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway is a story about evil. Seierstad traces Breivik’s life from his birth to his horrific crimes, his trial, and eventual (almost certainly lifelong) incarceration.  Seierstad’s book is a forensic inquiry into the nature of evil; was Breivik born evil or did his circumstances make him evil?  In the end this doesn’t matter to Breivik’s victims. Breivik killed seventy seven of his fellow citizens in an attempt to further his twisted ideology. Seierstad goes to great lengths to humanise Breivik’s victims, they are not simply numbers.  As Seierstad explores Breivik’s life she also traces the lives of a number of his victims, until their fateful meeting.  Although it was Breivik’s narcissism, personal issues (including unstable sexuality and failed business ventures), and desire to prove himself to the world that were causes of his crimes, the exact reasons why one person will suffer their inner demons and another person will explode in violence remain a mystery.

Breivik’s early childhood was painful.  His mother Wenche was mentally unstable and unable to provide stability to him or his sister Elisabeth.  His father was largely absent from his son’s life.  When he was involved he seemed to be overly harsh almost as if he was looking for an excuse to cut his son out of his life.

Breivik’s sexuality was confused to put it mildly.  Wenche seems to have had sexual issues herself, neighbours commented on her inappropriate sex talk.  As Wenche struggled to cope with Breivik it was agreed that he would be put into care for two weekends a month.  On the second weekend Wenche asked (when Breivik was aged 2) if he could occasionally touch his weekend dad’s penis as he only had contact with females.  He struggled to connect with real women, he seemed more at home with images of women.  He met a woman from Belarus online using a “mail order bride” service. Breivik, as was seen more explicitly in coming years, was a mysoginist.  If he felt any desires for a women at all he wanted his version of a traditional wife, an obedient female to cook the dinner and obey him.  His presumptive bride, Natascha, was the first woman he had brought home to his mother.  Unfortunately Natascha didn’t live up to expectations.  She wanted to go shopping and wasn’t happy with Breivik’s chauvinism.  There were no more girlfriends in Breivik’s life.

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Breivik failed to read social signals correctly.  He struggled to connect with his peers.  In school he was a lower order bully who dreamed of being cool.  He became a middle ranking tagger, spraying graffiti around Oslo.  However he struggled to know his place, always feeling he was higher up the pecking order than he really was.  He was tolerated but seen as slightly naff, slightly off-key, he tried too hard, pushed too far, became seriously uncool, and was excluded from tagging circles.  Tagging was also the cause of his final break from his father.  Incredibly, after a third arrest for tagging, his father broke off all contact with the 15 year old.  He joined the right-wing Progress Party but failed to be selected as a candidate for them.  Again he overstepped the mark, thinking he was more more important than he was.  It was not that Breivik had no friends, he even had some immigrant friends in childhood, but it seems as if any time he encountered  failure he dropped any friends associated with the time.  His attempts to become wealthy in business by running a company selling fake degrees came to an end when the police started to take an interest.  His attempts to make money from trading stocks on the internet didn’t work out.  The Freemasons were not what he thought it would be and he rarely attended meetings.

Breivik’s life disappointments could be defined as failures but they are not so different from the occasional life disappointments faced by many people.  However Breivik was a narcissist.  He did not develop the normal social support network of family and friends.  He felt himself superior to everybody he encountered, more intelligent, better looking, physically excellent.  He played no part in his life’s downturns, these were entirely other people’s fault.  He sunk into a life of playing video games in his mother’s flat.  He built a network he could control, an online network, that further distanced himself from normal human relations and was based around simulated violence.  When he emerged from this cocoon he had decided on his course of action.  He rented a farm, built bombs, gathered weapons, and launched his deluded attacks in Oslo and against unarmed children and teenagers on Utøya island. Seierstad points out the numerous security failings around government buildings and failed opportunities to stop Breivik before he reached the island. Seierstad goes through Breivik’s killings in detail.  I couldn’t read it all. Seierstad looked at the full and varied lives of several of Breivik’s victims – you get to know them as you read the book.  Their lives have the ordinary beauty of many of our lives but the hopes and dreams of the victims are cast into sharp relief by Breivik’s murderous actions.

Breivik’s psychopathic narcissism is quickly demonstrated to police shortly after his arrest.  He complains about a small cut on his finger.  After murdering dozens of people he is concerned about a tiny cut on his finger. Breivik has never, nor never will, show any remorse for his victims.  He will never be released from prison.  His dreams of starting a far right revolution across Europe have never materialised.  The effects of imprisonment have begun to take their toll.  Despite his best efforts he is perhaps slowly realising that he is not the centre of attention for the world.  He is fading from view.  His recent successful case against his prison conditions is a sign that he is desperately taking every opportunity to place himself centre stage. Breivik will die unloved (except perhaps by his mother). Breivik’s victims’ lives and deaths continue to have a greater impact on the world than Breivik’s depraved acts.

9/10

Related Links

Brexit: A Day of Pain for the EU, a Decade of Pain for the UK

Remain Failed to Connect with Voters

The UK’s vote to exit the European Union was a shock but not as big a shock as it was made out in some quarters.  Disillusioned voters in working class areas and the middle classes in English regions voted to leave.  They believed the Leave campaign’s half-truths and outright lies.  The Leave campaign fed on understandable fears about immigration and the overtly racist attitudes of many of their voters.  They built a negative emotional connection with Leave voters – they successfully built on a climate of xenophobia and legitimised the darker aspects British society.  The Leave campaign presented foreigners as taking UK jobs, sponging on the health and education systems, and destroying the cultural fabric of Britain.  Responsible politicians failed to successfully denounce such views.

The Remain campaign was an abject failure when it came to developing a positive emotional connection with undecided voters.  David Cameron could not move beyond his elite view of British society.  The Remain campaign continually spoke about “experts”.  Experts predicted economic catastrophe but Leave voters, by and large, didn’t care about experts.  Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was inept at trying to rally its voters to the Remain side even though it is poorer parts of Britain that receive large amounts of EU funding.  It is only a matter of time before Corbyn’s head rolls.

On BBC’s Question Time programme a schoolgirl asked a question about British universities.  Cameron spoke about the need for Britain to be in the EU to attract top class researchers.  And there he stopped.  To the average voter research funding for universities is not high on the list of their priorities.  He could have told the girl that if she ever wanted to spend a term studying in Amsterdam she wouldn’t be able to.  If she wanted to do summer work in France she wouldn’t be able to.  If she wanted to go Interrailing across Europe she would need visas for multiple countries and experience extra checks and delays at every border.  Being a citizen of the EU can enrich your daily life, the Remain campaign failed to show this.

Nigel Farage, despite being a millionaire married to a German (who he once employed), was driving an anti-intellectual campaign that fed white working class fears of immigration and an a belief that the EU is full of Machiavellian foreign bureaucrats intent on stealing Britain’s wealth.  The negative aspects of the Leave campaign were balanced by a deluded vision of Britain past and present.  This was campaign looking back to a golden age of British imperial power with Britain civilising the darker parts of the globe, with Churchill and his Spitfires winning World War II, and England winning the World Cup.  Of course this halcyon vision is, in many respects, a myth.  British imperialism stripped its colonies of natural resources and manpower to line pockets at home, Britain was crucial to winning World War II but often the contributions of the Americans, the Soviets, the fighters in Poland, France, Yugoslavia, China, and many other countries are overlooked.  It’s impossible to return to a Britain that never existed.  Post World War II Britain (and indeed Britain just before it joined the EEC) was a poorer country with higher rates of poverty and crime.  The economic growth of Britain has not been evenly spread, London and southern England are far richer, but this is not the EU’s fault.  The policies of successive British governments, including the government of Cameron and Boris Johnson, have been the primary cause of the the widening wealth gaps in Britain.  With the UK out of the EU British politicians will have one less thing to blame for their own failures.

The Irish Connection

Although the UK electorate voted to leave the EU the voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland did not.  The UK’s departure from the EU will have a greater impact on Ireland than any other EU member; Ireland is currently (I say currently as it is possible that Scotland will vote for independence from the UK in the next few years) the only country with a border with the UK.  A reintroduction of physical border posts at the border with Northern Ireland would damage the normalisation of relations North and South that have taken decades to achieve.  They would also lead to criminal gangs exploiting smuggling opportunities to bypass possible tariffs and border posts would present targets for terrorist groups to attack.  It has been suggested by the Leave campaign that the Common Travel Area that exists between Ireland and the UK will be maintained but this might not be possible.  Ireland and the UK joined the EEC at the same time.  The CTA existed when we were both outside the EU and when we were both in the EU.  It is not clear if the CTA could function following a UK departure from the EU.

Brexit, at least in the short term, will have a negative effect on the Irish economy.  The UK is our biggest trading partner.  The drop in the value of sterling will make Irish exports to the UK more expensive and tariffs will further increase this cost.  There will, however, be opportunities for Ireland.  Ireland will be the biggest (and apart from Malta) the only English speaking nation in the EU.  Already Ireland has the European headquarters of Google, Yahoo!, ebay, a large Intel plant, pharmaceutical, and financial service companies that employ tens of thousands of Irish people.  Ireland has a young educated population and Ireland (and Dublin in particular) has no problem attracting educated workers from across the world.  Ireland will seek to lure companies from the UK and encourage companies that might have considered setting up in the UK to establish bases in Ireland.  Brexit will damage the Irish economy so Ireland will attempt to claw back some of these losses possibly resulting in further damage to the UK economy.

British people, by and large, care little about Northern Ireland, have little knowledge of its history and turn a blind eye to human rights abuses (thankfully largely historical now) perpetrated by British security forces and the RUC.  The vital economic links between Northern Ireland and Ireland have been ignored by the Leave campaign.  Some British politicians have suggested that the border between North and South could remain open if passport checks are introduced at Northern Ireland airport and ports going to the rest of the UK.  The patriotism of Farage and Johnson involves them treating Northern Irish unionists as different from their fellow UK citizens.  They have been sold out by Little England voters.  But Northern Ireland is not Scotland.  Despite Sinn Féin’s rhetoric there will be no border poll or referendum on uniting the island of Ireland.  The majority of Northern Irish unionists wanted to remain part of the EU but they do not want to be part of a united Ireland.

A Disaster for the UK

Will things be as bad as predicted for the UK?  Probably not.  The UK will not collapse.  But it will be poorer.  It will be economically poorer.  Inflation will rise, goods and services (especially imported goods) will become more expensive, and the unemployment rate will rise.  But more significantly the UK will become culturally poorer.  Its people won’t have the opportunity to study or work freely across Europe.  In my lifetime Ireland has become a multicultural society and the EU has played a major part of that.  I have worked with and made friends from the UK, France, Poland, Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Finland, Romania, and Slovakia.  They have enriched my life, taught me about their cultures, and introduced me to their food and drink!  As an impoverished student I could look for summer work in the Netherlands, no questions asked.  I could travel across multiple European borders with, at most, the quick flash of my harp emblazoned passport. These life altering experiences might be lost to UK citizens.  UK pensioners who have retired to other countries (especially Spain) can have their pensions paid into foreign bank accounts and access the local healthcare system freely.  This might all change.  The Leave campaign was very good at focussing on issues that effect very few people (such as voting rights for prisoners or UK fishing rights) but have ignored the thousands of EU laws that protect consumers, that have improved workers’ rights, and have protected minorities.  The economic benefits of EU have led to prosperity (look at Europe before the EU) the uneven spread of wealth across the UK is not the EU’s fault, it’s the fault of UK politicians. The Remain campaign failed to challenge the simplistic and often false Leave statements.  A second referendum is a possibility but, as it stands, the UK is about to enter an economic and cultural dark age.

Related Links

Financial Times: Brexit in seven charts – the economic impact

Irish Times: Brexit fantasy is about to come crashing down

The GuardianBrexit vote sparks scramble for European passports

The SpectatorOut – and into the world: why The Spectator is for Leave