Zanzibari Food

When I was last in Zanzibar, it was both just as I remembered it as a child and not at all. Today the old spice island is a hip holiday destination with posh hotels along its scenic coast. But I knew it when it was assuredly itself, not having to impress or wheedle moneyed foreign visitors, who fly in and out and soon forget. Thankfully underneath the tarty makeup and false smiles, old Zanzibar is still there, just. With so many layers of conquest and occupation, it’s a wonder it hasn’t sunk to the bottom of the sea.

The Bantu were the first settlers, then, in the 9th century Arabs and Persian turned up. Arabs started clove farming using black slave labour. The isle has seen bleak times. The Portuguese arrived next and fought winning and losing wars with the Arabs, until finally skulking off. Indian merchants sailed over, Chinese travellers dropped in. The British took charge after slavery was abolished and German rule cowed the place for a short while.

Each nationality left its mark, particularly on language and food. Coconut palms were introduced by Hindus; the Portuguese brought avocados, chillies and cashew nut plants from Brazil. Ancient travelogues describe Zanzibari rice, ghee, groundnuts, cassava, wild fowls, pulses. In 1505, a Portuguese sailor noted that besides honey, maize and meat ‘… Zanzibar produces sweet oranges, lemons, pomegranates and sugar cane’. It was a cornucopia.

My father was cerebral, unreliable and joyless but my mum, in spite of all her tribulations, loved life. She was sensual, loved food and perfumes, films and music, and Zanzibar, the place of fabulous food, scents and secret delights. She saved up all year and took me there so often, Zanzibar’s sea, smell, sounds mixed culture got embedded deep in my psyche. I speak the local language Swahili and as soon as I land I feel as if I haven’t been away.

We used to take a ferry over from Dares salaam. First the shoreline came into view, white houses with carved Arabian balconies, and then smells wafted over. We stayed at a holiday hostel for widows and other needy women and their children. The sea air was considered a necessity for good health. Each family got one room and several mattresses. Food was delivered by local women from the mosque who cooked in their kitchens everyday and then sold it to holiday makers. Tiffins were brought over by the servants and we paid hardly anything for the most extraordinary grub on earth. You can still get these tiffins. I ordered one when I was there five years ago. On the beach my very British daughter scoffed ‘pek bateta, boiled new potatoes, halved, sandwiched with a hot red paste and fried in batter, eaten with date ketchup and masala fish eaten with bread, ending with jugu cake made with flour and unpeeled groundnuts, an exoticised Victorian sponge.

Some posh hotels do serve authentic Zanzibari food. In one I ordered ndizi na kastad, a favourite when I was a chubby young child, bananas in soft yellow custard with cinnamon and nutmeg! At the Sarena Hotel in old Stone Town, as the sun sets over the sea, they have local musicians playing their instruments and singing Swahili laments while fabulous snacks are served- lentil fritters, fried cassava, small mince patties served with coconut and coriander chutney, spring rolls and halva. Paradise would be dull in comparison.

All these goodies and more are also made and sold in Farodhani Square the bustling, noisy evening meeting place for locals. Though intensely Muslim, Zanzibar has not yet been Saudi Arabised and so men and women mingle here, modestly attired of course. Mishkaki, skewers of small pieces of barbequed mutton are still as good as decades back, only now instead of chipped enamel bowls they use paper plates. Addictive cassava crisps are fried in great big vats of hot oil, sprinkled with salt and chilli. Sometimes you find corn-on-the cob served with a thick peanut sauce, which you must suck fast if you don’t want it to drip over your clothes. Then there is the famous Zanzibari ‘mix’, a tangy soupy sauce with lentil dumplings and other stuff eaten with a spoon, a dish that looks like dishwater and leftovers until you taste it and are blown away.

I have left the best to last. Find a place, not fancy which serves Zanzibari kuku paka and meat pilau. The first is chicken cooked in coconut and the second rice, potatoes and meat cooked in a single pot eaten with kachumber, finely chopped onions and tomatoes and fresh chillies. The rice dish was described by Ibn Batuta the global traveller back in 1324 and should never be eaten with cutlery. When I die I hope my family makes a huge vat and serves it to mourners to eat with their fingers, a homage to the loveliest of islands where I spent the happiest of days.

Published in Independent on Sunday Magazine

Racism and the UK Police

I can’t impugn police officers who racially abuse and assault black and Asian citizens. In the last fortnight ten complaints have been brought against the Met by different black men who allegedly suffered racist insults and violence after arrest. One of them, Mauro Demetrio, recorded the experience on his phone. A new inquiry was launched into the case of 53 year old, black bus driver Kester David, found burnt to death two years ago in Enfield. The police treated it as suicide though the coroner recorded an open verdict. His family strongly believe the Met didn’t investigate with due care and professionalism because David was black. Mr and Mrs Lawrence faced that stonewalling when their boy Stephen was killed. The IPCC remains, as ever, utterly hopeless. Now Police Chiefs and Top Tories have got on their high horses and promise to rid this land of prejudiced coppers. Bernard Hogan-Howe, head of the Met has declared he is their ‘ implacable enemy’ and will drive them out of the Met. Even Boris, ( read further to find out why ‘even’) wants an official probe into the Lawrence case to check out if some officers behaved improperly.
Why turn all blame on policemen and their forces? To cuss and diss them is displacement, a way of tossing off collective responsibility.

Bob Morgan of Thatcham, Berkshire sent a pithy letter to this paper stating facts too long denied. Racist police officers, he wrote, only reflect our society, ‘where even discussing racism is so uncomfortable it is rarely done.’ I thank Mr Morgan for his acuity and candour. Such talk has vanished ( been banished actually) from the public space. Britain has decided racism is over or an unsightly scratch on its radiant self-image or a profitable lie used by citizens of colour or, worst of all, perfectly OK and even understandable. Disagree with any of the above and you get slapped by the right (metaphorically) and bullied by an army of malevolent internet ‘nationalists’, or are quietly categorised as trouble and dealt with accordingly. I now try hard not to bring up British racism because what follows is scary. I was recently told by a successful independent TV producer that the time was right for people like ‘that Sikh in a kilt. Funny, no chip on his shoulder, who doesn’t make whites feel guilty, not full of PC shit ’ Now you know why so few young black and Asian highflyers mention the ‘R’ word.

Britain is uniquely open, delights in different cultures, where people of all backgrounds mix, work together and marry. We have come some way since the blatantly racist sixties, but not that far. My friend the restaurateur Iqbal Wahab, a mentor for unemployed people say race discrimination is the elephant in the room, seen but ignored.

Women know how a little progress is used to block further change. It is even worse for racial minorities who are supposed to be ‘grateful’ for being here trying the patience of the ‘host country’ by always asking for more.

So to Boris. He denounced the Lawrence inquiry as ‘hysterical’ a ‘witch hunt’, the recommendations more tyrannical than people suffered in Ceausescu’s Rumania. I couldn’t find any of these columns online- must have been buried in a box for prosperity. Or there is an election to win, black votes to get. His arts advisor, Munira Mirza has repeatedly asserted, without hard evidence, that racism is no longer that serious a barrier to life chances and that the excluded today are white working classes. People of all backgrounds have been failed by the powerful. To pit them against each other is a disgraceful political strategy.

Figures show that over 50% of young black men are unemployed today, double the number in 2008. Trust me they are not all trainee rioters and drug dealers. Furthermore Black Britons are more likely to be unemployed than Black Americans. When last did you hear a politician make a full and thoughtful speech about the evils of racism? I believe it was Jack Straw, when he announced the Lawrence inquiry. If there were others do send me names. Politicians frequently push gay rights and muster up concern for the disabled and women’s equality, though with this government pretty words are used to distract us from their iniquitous policies punishing women, the disabled and poorest. But still, at least we argue about those injustices.

Race is buried under an avalanche of outrage over political correctness and of prejudices whipped up by the press, pundits and politicians against non European immigrants and Muslims the whole lot thought to be active or passive terrorists. Frank Field’s obsessive anti-immigration campaigns have made outsiders of us all. Now those who give jobs to whites feel they are being patriotic, favouring true Brits. Nobody cares when Muslims who have never been tried are parcelled off to the US, and Blair and Straw casually wave off their complicity in rendition. The English Defence League and BNP have been accommodated by a nation that fought Nazi racism. That’s how bad it is.

The police reflect what Britain has become. Racist cops burnt on the stake of righteousness makes our leaders feel better, but doesn’t address that terrible truth.

Published in The Independent

India Land of Teeming Tranquility

I went to India and didn’t go to the Taj Mahal, or Rajasthan’s lavish palaces and temples, or to lush Kerala or holy cities. I didn’t stay in any hotel with Raj bling and smiley doormen dressed up as royal attendants ( turban, silk tunics and lush moustaches) or eat in restaurants where they throw rose petals over you. Didn’t buy a tourist T shirt either. Done all that and been awed and delighted. The usual tourist trips are fantasies. This was a different journey of discovery. I had a travel fellowship from the Churchill Foundation to explore the relationship between England and India today. I was also interested in the extraordinariness of ordinary, urban India and how its people- including those who are creative and artistic- define, decipher and elucidate their country which is changing dizzyingly fast and yet, in many ways, stays still and timeless like a Buddha statue.

The Tug-of-War between the old and the new has gone on for centuries and neither side wins or loses. Nobody gets too exercised. Many now fear that the balance is unsustainable, that the demons of modernity will break the taut cord and claim the future. They know the detritus it creates, the human cost and dread the loss of ancestral connections. Others take a longer, more optimistic view. Progress is essential, everyone understands that. The poor though are even more wretched than the starving Victorians in the sketches of Gustave Dore and George Cruickshank. Yet the cities pulsate with energy and aspiration. Some aspects of India will endure no matter what. It is too big, too varied, too unpredictable, too inventive, too spiritual, too poetic, too conscious of its history to be consumed by the rabid consumerism of the last three decades.

I booked the flights to and accommodation for Mumbai and Delhi and took off, alone and a little tentative. The nervousness soon vanished. I started to get shape-shifting, modern India, a multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious melee, its layers of complexity and mystique captured in beautiful pictures by the award winning Indian photographer Raghu Rai. You only get a sense of all that through intimacy with the people, by not being afraid of teeming crowds.

Rai – a protégé of Henri Cartier Bresson- will forever be known for his pictures of victims of the Bhopal disaster . Less familiar perhaps are his affecting images of normal life and joy in the heaving conurbations. The photograph of men reading newspapers contentedly while indistinguishable crowds rush and swish around them in stations is what I saw at Mumbai’s Gothic Victorian terminus. His street pictures are unthreatening, peaceful even. When I walked around in busy localities, afraid of being run over by anything from a car to a cow, I realised how Indians have the ability to share space. I witnessed no road rage. Drivers seem to understand a spurt of anger would turn into a riot and who knows what. So smiles, tolerance, humour, self restraint and good manners are necessary life skills. Sometimes a young woman would take my arm and help me through the most maddening spots and we would have go for a coffee and talk. I made friends that way – Rehana took me to the Prince of Wales museum ( now renamed the CSMVS Museum) in Mumbai, an Indo-Saracen structure standing tall with imperial vanity. I sat with women who were chatting to each other on some steps in a suburb. Soon I was in one of their homes drinking tea and snacking on the best vegetable samosas ever. Two of them came with me to a clothes shop so I wouldn’t be cheated. Rai’s picture of just such a gang of women will always remind me of that afternoon. I was waiting for Rehana one day in a cheap restaurant and found myself next to two orange-robed priests and a nun. They were discussing the speed of modernisation and growing godlessness. I told them churches were emptying in Britain too. One priest with amber eyes gave me a small, elephant god statuette, Ganesh, to keep me safe.

Such encounters made this visit precious. But there was much more. I stayed in Juhu, by the sea, where the top Bollywood stars have their mansions. Not one of them invited me over for a cocktail. Never mind. Far more exciting was the Writer’s Bloc theatre festival staging new works by young writers, a collaborative venture between our Royal Court and Mumbai’s Rage theatre company. It was at the Prithvi theatre, owned by the famous Kapoor acting family, the equivalent of the Redgraves. Some plays were unbearably dark, others were sharp and witty. All dealt with live themes. I have rarely seen such raw brilliance on stage. Shashi Kapoor, a gorgeous screen star once who was married to the late Jennifer Kendal, Felicity’s sister is now very ill. He was there, every night a ghostly presence in a white shawl. We ate potato parathas in the open air theatre cafe, met the playwrights, actors, and young punters. Bonhomie, arty discussions, intellectual debates, the buzz. Was this what it was like in Paris’s Left Bank in its heyday?

You could hire a driver and car for eight hours for around £20 and go wherever you fancied. Such freedom. With my driver Surinder, I went to the usual sights but in my time and following his quirky ideas. I left feeling I could belong to this city- because it is like London, such an infinite mix.

Delhi was bitterly cold, and at night full of small fires on streets lit to warm street dwellers, watchmen and others, dangerous I’m sure, but lovely. There I stayed at The Park, a thoroughly modern hotel in Lutyen’s grand Delhi. with boulevards and showy buildings. The Scandinavian decor makes a statement. India is forging ahead and is more than busy bee call centres and an ‘ethnic’ pleasure ground for westerners. I liked that defiance. But even here the staff was obliging in a way you would never get in Europe and people come up and talk to you. Sangeeta, a dancer, was waiting in the lounge, said she loved London and took me off to a wonderful classical dance performance.

In the restaurant modern Indians were eating linguini and steaks and salad. And a mile away at Bukhara, a famous restaurant serving Afghani food in Maurya, a very olde worlde hotel, white visitors are given pink cotton pinnies to wear and have to eat messily with their hands. Bill Clinton loved all that. Contradictions, big and small, make India baffling and endlessly fascinating.

In Delhi I did revisit some of my favourite old buildings like the Qutub Minar, a tall red sandstone tower built by Muslim rulers in the 13th century surrounded by other monuments. Many such relics are in ruins, neglected. In one of Rai’s pictures boys are draped contentedly around broken, old carved pillars. The speedy new India is neglectful of this precious past.

There are countless such accusations and criticisms one can make of this populous, difficult democracy. In the end though, as Rai’s pictures show, you find tranquillity here and incredible human contact, resilience and life force. Will all that go as modern towers fill the skylines? I hope not. I think not.

Published in The Independent Magazine

Black Eyed Beans or is it Peas?

Sunday evening. Exhausted after finishing my column for Monday’s independent. What do you mean you didn’t know? How have you lived without my weekly homilies? Such wisdom on sex, love, frocks, Blair, Blair, Blair, Cameron and his Eton mess, men and their faithless ways – all passed you by. Buy the paper on Monday plus one for Granny. Was both amused and vexed watching Masterchef. A white Australian chef was described as the expert on Thai food. Of course. He just helped himself to teh food and recipes. Locals were just dumb locals. Anyway, this is the cheap, cherry dish which only needs forethought and cooking time. No attention – like a sleeping baby you just need to sometimes go check on it.

The day before
Wash 2 cups of beans and soak in plenty of water with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda.

The day after
Drain the beans and boil in plenty of salted water with another pinch of bicarb. Cook till they are soft but not broken down. My mum said it kept down farting. But she had strange ideas

1 bunch fresh coriander
Juice of one lime
1 tsp sugar
8 cashew nuts
1 hot chopped chilli
1 tsp turmeric
2 tins coconut milk
Whizz together all ingredients but the milk
In a saucepan mix the milk with the mixture and cook for ten minutes adding water if it gets too thick.
Add beans, cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes. Eat with rice or French baguettes and salad.

Sev- sweet Vermicelli- a Mother's Offering

It’s Mothers day and what do I feel? Guilt of course- part of the job description- but for my generation, the conscience is pinched at both ends. I miss Jena, my mother terribly, every day but most of all in March when she died in 2006, and then on Mother’s day itself when with her I was a child, her child forever. I think of how awful I sometimes was to her, the shouts and tears and, even when she was an old woman, my impatience and hurry to get on with the rest of my life. Well, now I have the rest of my life and I want her here. Then there are all those ways in which I fail my teenage daughter soon to fly off to university ( I hope and fear), for whom I would do anything and have and then casually let down because I don’t think about my words often enough when it comes to my family. My mother loved sev, sweet vermicelli and so does my daughter. Women from my Shia Ismaili community make it for a special lunch to feed seven pre-pubescent girls, who are also given rose scented hankies and rosaries, when they have a run of bad luck and want to turn it round. It tastes of sweet sorrow and contrition. When Ugandan Asians were thrown out by Idi Amin and arrived in Britain, many were housed in camps around the country. These lunches were made and fed to girls in hope. Many of the exiles have ended up rich and successful. Maybe there is something magical in the foods offered.
But today I make sev to say sorry- to Jena and to my little girl. And to tell them how much I love them. 

I cup vermicelli- you can buy some which is broken into small bits and that is best
1/3 cup golden castor sugar
1 can evaporated milk
½ pt full cream milk
A handful each of sultanas, shelled unsalted pistachio nuts or flaked almonds
½ can condensed milk or less if you like things less sweet
¾ pt of water
½ tsp vanilla essence

Heat sugar and water in a pan with a lid and bring to the boil- boil for 3 minutes.
Add the vermicelli, put the lid on, lower the heat so it simmers for 5 minutes.
Check it is almost cooked or cook a bit more.
Add all the milks and simmer for 4 more minutes stirring gently so it doesn’t stick at the bottom
Add the sultanas, nuts and essence.
You can eat it warm or cold.

The Old Order Returns

Next year it’ll be forty years since I landed here. London is my place, my home, and I feel a slow-growing attachment to England in particular and Britain too. I am coming to understand the nature of my country, its queer ways and deep conservatism. It changes yet never can change. Its past achievements and sense of high destiny in world matters make it special. But in modern times one finds lethargy, widespread fatalism, dull acceptance. After radical lurches towards a different and better society, Britain reverts back to what it has always been – a set, immovably hierarchical, secretive, unequal, shady nation.

The New Years honours list is released and fake outrage breaks out over some of the names. The ritual now is as familiar as fireworks on New Year’s Eve, brief and noisy and then it’s back to the couch, computer, bed or bar. Once again medals go to gentlemen who selflessly donate cash to political parties and a bit to real charities too. How can we begrudge these fine chaps their knighthoods and CBE’s? Sir Alistair Graham, previously chairman of the committee on standards in public life, warns that though the recipients gave to good causes, people might suspect otherwise and that such ‘unfortunate’ public perceptions could ‘devalue’ the system. How can you devalue an indefensible system? The rows will blow over. It will be business as usual by Tuesday. This is not a slur on all those individuals who make real contributions to their communities and localities. We must honour them. The disgrace is that they have to share their glorious moments with the undeserving. Let me confess that I too was once handed a gong. I was stupid and hypocritical to accept it. It was returned when we went to war in Iraq, but that doesn’t mitigate the stupidity and hypocrisy. It was all wrong. You never know about the nomination process, who decides and you can’t talk about getting an offer. It is all to keep up the mystique and draw you into a dodgy, conspiratorial club.

The political parties are known to be consummate exploiters of the honours system. The Royals are at it too, big time. They hand them out to each other like sweets- the ghastly Prince Andrew regularly gets baubles from his doting mum. And the munificence extends to men and women who indirectly ensure royal reputations and longevity. No one minds. Helen Mirren was rewarded for her portrayal of the Queen and now Helena Bonham Carter has a nice brooch for playing the Queen Mum so sympathetically in the King’s Speech. And why, surprise, surprise, that arch royalist William Shawcross, was also thanked hugely with a shiny CVO for his hagiography of the Queen Mother, a lady with charm and also some questionable views and habits.

The old order has reasserted itself in parliament too, and insinuated itself back into the hearts of people. New surveys show the upper class Tories in government are more trusted than Labour. Britons obviously believe toffs know best how to keep the ship on course in stormy waters. They have been watching too many episodes of Downton Abbey, gazing back wistfully at the past when class was fixed and ensured continuity.

Multitalented and affable Julian Fellowes, the creator of this romance is a Tory peer and generous supporter of his party. In the House of Lords some Peers are there just for the kudos and a number used cash and influence to get in. The nation feels no shame about any of that. In other countries we call such practices ‘corruption’. Here sleaze is just tradition.

MPs still will not accept proper scrutiny of their expenses and maintain unwholesome connections with lobbyists and interest groups. The biggest scandals evaporate faster than you can say ‘investigation’. Anyone know what happened to Liam Fox’s good friend Adam Werritty? Will we ever discover what the duo were up to in clandestine meetings with the Israelis and US Neocons?

As times get harder, instead of protesting about the rich and privileged who give back as little as possible to the society, Britons now blame and hate the most deprived and disadvantaged. It is all there in the latest British Attitudes survey I wrote about recently. Victorian values are back and so too Thatcherism. And just on cue here comes the compelling Meryl Streep in a new, heart-pulling movie about Mrs Thatcher shown to be a woman having to fight to make it in a man’s world, mother, icon, saviour of the nation. This woman did nothing for women, used state instruments viciously against all those she decided were the enemy within, wrecked collective bonds and any bids for a fairer society, promoted greed and self interest. Her image has been carefully guarded and nurtured and now she is back as in the hearts of voters. All is forgotten, all forgiven. Apparently a state funeral for her is already planned by the establishment.

The nation turns away from progressive politics. The right owns government, culture and media including the Blogosphere. Even the poor and wretched have given up trying. They may not have bread but boy in 2012 they will have the biggest circuses – with the Olympics, Queen’s Jubilee, Boris probably re-elected, honours for the cleverest tax dodgers. Democratic socialists, republicans, feminists, anti-racists, egalitarians are in for a bad year. Stay strong comrades. Just hope our day comes. Just not yet, not for a long, long time. Perhaps never.

Published in The Independent

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Blame for the English Riots

Last week Darell Desuze, 17, admitted the manslaughter of Richard Mannington Bowes, 68, in Ealing. Bowes tried to talk sense to crazed rioters last year, was attacked and later died. It was a savage crime, one of many committed over those frightening days. Such offenders have few defenders, understandably. Desuze will be sentenced next month by the judge, Mr Justice Saunders who said he would take into account the context when passing judgement. Good luck to m’lud. Even his considerable cerebrum may find it somewhat testing to sum up the context, contested daily by every sector of society and an unending line of headmen and specialists.

Mayor Johnson has just blamed our educators and wants strategic control of failing schools in London, a number of which he claims are ‘chillingly bad’. It is a pitch for re-election and also Boris being plain daft. True some pupils leave sink schools and well, just sink. However, there is no evidence that the young people who rioted were illiterate and innumerate or that some bracing Latin might have tamed them. The very next day Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector for Schools turned on ‘lax’ mums and dads who expect teachers to be surrogate parents and double standards: ‘ …bad behaviour and violence is condemned but endlessly available as entertainment.’ Some of this analysis is compelling – in their bonfires of vanities, winners like Alan Sugar and Simon Cowell have flamed good manners and consideration and the burden on many teachers breaks backs and will. But again schools can’t simply shift all responsibility elsewhere .

Christina Odone, the Catholic high priestess is absolutely sure the rioters came from homes without dads, again plausible up to a point but not evidenced. MPs David Davis ( Tory) and David Lammy( Labour), raised by lone mothers, weren’t seen throwing bricks or torching carpet shops. Max Hastings concludes the causes lie with the generous welfare system. Soon immigration or multiculturalism and Political Correctness will be blamed and we will have the full set.

More seriously, studies suggest deprivation and inequality were underlying causes, softie nonsense dismissed by Cameron. Last week the Runnymede Trust produced results of a survey carried out by trained 11-15 year olds ( a brilliant idea) found that race was a factor. How can it not be? Unrest started after Mark Duggan, a young black/mixed race man was shot dead and the police first said the victim shot at them then it turned out he didn’t. This has happened too many times to black and Asian Britons and each new case adds to collective rage and life struggles. The unemployment figure for young black men now stands at 56%. But white anarchists were out there in high numbers, so race cannot be overemphasized. My head hurts now looking this way and that, trying to piece together all the possible reasons why English cities erupted. But we must persevere, dive deeper , look more honestly at this country as it is today and at the responses to the disturbances which should worry us. It is not just to imprison young people for many months for stealing bottles of water or a bin.

Some thinkers and analysts have been duly diligent. David Wilson, former prison governor and academic locates some of the unease in our widespread culture of entitlement: ‘It is not only about the underclass, it’s about politicians, bankers, it’s about footballers’ The one and only Camilla Batmanghelidjh who works with some of the nation’s most troubled young people wants us to understand why kids go bad: ‘It’s repeated humiliation, being continually dispossessed in a society rich with possession’. Two weeks ago outside TopShop in Oxford Street, I saw people camping, not anti-capitalist protestors as I thought, but capitalism’s fools, desperate for some new Nike trainers. I asked two of them why? They looked at me as if I was a loon. These consumers have had their brains occupied. They are what they must own. Those who can’t buy will take. The panel looking into the riots criticizes aggressive advertising aimed at young people. For this maniacally pro-business coalition these messages will sound communist and will be duly dismissed.

Which makes one ask, is it to do with how the ruling Tories were parented and schooled? Raised by Uber-businessmen or stock owning dads and frightfully society conscious mums must have left their little hearts undernourished surely. And then to go to schools where bullying or warlike competition is seen as leadership, what hope did they have? Avaricious bankers were similarly made not born that way. When Osborne can only give to those up high and kick away the weak walls of benefits for those under his feet, the poor chap can’t help it. Toffs and street gangsters are more alike than they would like. Neither lot know how to care about society, the pain and destruction they cause and are without conscience.

As the cuts hurt and citizens get more divided and intolerant, there will be more unrest for sure by nihilists. The powerful will impose further severe suppression and trust will collapse. Neither the Jubilee nor Olympics can save us or put GB back together again.

Published in The Independent

Israel's Abdication of Human Rights

This February Thaer Halahleh, 34, wrote a letter to his wife Shireen from an Israeli jail: ‘My detention has been renewed seven times and they still haven’t charged me. I can’t take it anymore.’ Then he began a hunger strike as did captive Bilal Diab. That was 77 days ago. Both are Palestinians, fathers, whose young daughters are strip searched and terrified when they visit. David Rose, an exceptional investigative journalist and Jewish himself, recently publicised their stories. Eight others have been on the same, silent, self-wasting, wasted protest. Halahleh’s eyes were bleeding, blood instead of tears. He, Diab and others may well be dead by the time you read this. Last Friday supreme court judges in this hubristic democracy turned down an application from civil rights groups to have the man moved to civilian hospitals. They didn’t want perhaps, their own good citizens to witness such stuff. What would that do to the image of the plucky little nation, surrounded by real and imagined threats?

The moralistic Chief Rabbi will not be heard on Thought for the Day expressing sorrow or reciting ethical mantras on the treatment of these prisoners. Ardent British Zionists will not be pressed to condemn those responsible for the state barbarism. You certainly won’t get a big TV hit like Homeland, based on Israeli series, Hatufim, now showing on SKY TV about one of their soldiers, captured and eventually released by Palestinian militants. Come on, you cool, edgy TV chaps, how about a film about a handsome Palestinian held by the Israelis till he loses his mind? Do I hear a choral ‘No’?

Western opinion formers have been indifferent, in some cases knowingly so about what is happening. No condemnations are heard around Parliament. They say we must have freedom of speech, but that right is never evoked when it comes to Israel. The BNP and EDL can spread their racist poison freely but Baroness Jenny Tongue is savaged by Zionists and her own party for saying that nation ‘is not going to be there in its present forever in its present form.’ She has just quit the LibDems. If she had uttered the same words about, say, Zimbabwe, she would have been acclaimed.

A large number of enlightened British Jews see the double standards and object to Israel’s intransigence. It must be so hard to do what they do, behave with integrity and empathize with those they are instructed to hate.

The detained Palestinians are embarked on peaceful, Gandhian protest action. They want their families to be able to visit without restrictions, decent medical treatment, not to be put into solitary confinement for years on end, to be taken to court and tried. How is that ‘terrorism’? With the 1981 IRA hunger strikers of whom ten died, the most anti-Republican British papers published pictures and told us was happening. TV too covered their journeys to the very end.

With these slowly dying inmates and the 6000 others locked up without due process, there is nothing, nada. I never knew until this week that since 1967, 700,000 Palestinians have been detained. Not all were innocent but nor were all of them guilty. To be a Palestinian, to want equality, rights, freedom and land is not a crime. Except it is , for hardline Israelis.

Their country is protected from censure partly because of fears that any criticism is potentially ‘anti-Semitic’. Some anti-Semites do use Israel as a cover but then Israel uses that fact to tar and warn all legitimate criticism. Its governments do what they damned well want and claim perpetual exceptionality. Its darkest deeds are thus left un-scrutinized. This time though, it is suddenly dawning on some key people, among them the hapless Middle East saviour Tony Blair, that these ‘martyrs’ could trigger another Intifada. He is urging Israeli officials to ‘take all measures to prevent a tragic outcome that could have serious implications for stability and security’ Why he even uttered the words ‘human rights’. The UN and other bodies have intervened. They will all be rebuffed., so monstrous are the egos of the ultra right wing leadership. In any case Netanyahu et al can, and with absolute validity, point at Guantanamo Bay and our own prisoners held without trial. They are all in it together.

Blair is right to be fearful. Every time a hunger striker dies, even more inchoately angry young Muslim men will be radicalised and turn murderous. Some are raised in the west, see and hear all the cant about freedom, democracy, fairness and justice and then witness the betrayal and oppression of Palestinians. That dissonance between principles and reality makes them, perhaps, even more enraged than the Palestinians themselves who have low expectations and few illusions. This is not making excuses for terrorists, just a reality check.

I truly want Israel to survive and thrive. Fighting against its real adversaries and ill wishers, it becoming its own worst enemy. British activist Tom Hurndall, 21, was sheltering a Palestinian child from Israeli bullets in Gaza in 2003, when he was killed. His candid journals have just been published. Read them and mourn for the idealistic young man and the loss of all idealism in Israel.

Published in The Independent

Good at Sex bad at Love

At the supermarket on Friday night, my beloved said a red, heart-shaped candle was tat and a total rip-off at £8.99. Guess he won’t be buying me the latest, big thing for Valentine’s day, made of a new metal amalgam, Rubedo. Created by Tiffany, it’s slightly pink and quite attractive. Hoop earrings cost a thousand pounds and a bangle seven times as much, and not even real gold as my mother would have said. But for someone called Edwina Ings-Chambers, an effusive connoisseur of high style, a piece of Rubedo would be making: ’… that statement of statements- the “will you love and cherish me forever” one…’ Love costs in these circles. And therefore is worth nothing. Real love is priceless. I went to see the disturbing and touching George site – Clooney film, The Descendents about a dying, unconscious wife, grief, loss and marital betrayal. All the while I was thinking about how much my man and marriage mean to me, the strength and commitment of our mutual love, how lucky we are. I hated my body and face before I met him, was lost, untrusting and wounded. Oh there have been terrible moments and phases; we have shouted and said vile things; I have driven away wanting out. But we never gave up on our promise and would not break the bond. More than twenty- two years on we are best friends and lovers. ( Note to husband: Now don’t go off with some enticing young thing and make me rue these words. )

Love between couples should be about resilience, fidelity, trust, that steady entwining of hearts and minds, slow -cooked sexual intimacy, soul to soul murmurs. How archaic that sounds, except, perhaps, to the bonneted ladies of the Jane Austen Society. These days, it seems, relationships come and go like the colours of fashion. A big wedding followed by a short marriage and the next big wedding is how the story goes. Celebs and the powerful lead the way and humbles follow. Katie Price is a fitting goddess of our times. In our age of break and take, the Beckhams, together still after thirteen years, bless them, are oddballs or screwballs as they say in LA. UK divorce rates ( though stabilising) remain excessively high. I have just finished a series on the devastating effect of divorce on individuals for BBC Radio4 to be broadcast later this month. CHANGE HERE Then there are the recent studies showing the public is intensely relaxed about adultery, a pastime growing in popularity. Tomorrow is a day of brisk trade in romantic frivolities- kitsch, insistent candlelit dinners, overpriced bubbly. Lots of hot sex too. In his book on post-modernism Ziauddin Sardar writes: ’The sheer quantity of sex around us is unprecedented in history. We are the first generation ever to be constantly watching, listening to, thinking about, preparing for, engaging in and recovering from sex.’ Though its effects are short lived and too much is decoupled from the emotional life there can be no doubt that sex is better today for most western men and women than it was even half a century back. But with love the news is only bad.

Too many people are rubbish at it; it’s causing chronic heartache and is now just another instant choice, a shopping opportunity, an off- the-shelf or online commodity. Eva Illouz, an Israeli sociologist explores the tragedy in a new book, Why Love Hurts. Though always blamed and shamed, feminism, she finds, is not responsible for the state we are in. The causes are found in the consumerist, capitalist culture which has consumed us all. Also responsible are non-committal men who want it all- several partners, serial families, affairs, both freedom and cheap comfort. Now before chaps say it, let me. Such assertions are grossly unfair to all the constant men who love their women ardently and forever. And true that out there are also capricious women, greedy, selfish and incapable of long term tenderness and devotion. But at present their numbers are relatively small compared to the swell of self-centred males. We can all agree though, I hope, that the culture is toxic and killing off the one refuge we have to retreat from the vagaries of time and fate and to stay on in the memories of the one left behind. To lose faith in love is a seismic sign of total pessimism, and that can’t be good for the psyche or sense of security. Not everybody finds the real thing, but we used to believe in the possibility. Less and less now it seems.

That is why so many are now turning to more practical measures- IVF babies for women who have accepted a life without a partner, the huge increase in arranged dating, no different really from Asian arranged marriages, except you pay rather a lot to the matchmakers. It works for many and sometimes the unexpected happens. One friend, after years of wretched failed relationships with men, found a manfriend online, and they clicked. They’ve been together a while and something, she says, is growing: ‘It’s not like I hear bells and see rainbows or stars when he touches me. But I so look forward to him coming home. I want to hear his voice, feel him around me, in the house, in our bed. I feel cherished. But I haven’t said anything to him.’ That’s love I say. And she should tell him, though not on Valentine’s day which he detests. I hope she does and he stays.

Published in The Independent