Friday, January 18, 2019

"The author's mouthpiece" -- My latest review for Catalonia Today magazine





Elizabeth Costello is that very rare thing: a commercially successful writer of fiction from Australia – the far end of the world that has typically given very little attention (or much else) to people who use words for their living and plenty of attention to those who are professionals in sports or make big bucks some other way.


It’d be an exaggeration to say that someone like this author would have to be invented in fiction because she simply couldn’t exist in real Australian life, but this is almost a forgivable exaggeration, given the interests of the populace there in mainly competitive activities.
Being in the creative fields in Australia is often a bit like being labelled as a poser. In that wide, brown land the word “intellectual” is sometimes used as a type of insult.

At one point in JM Coetzee’s novel, Costello apologises to her audience: “I usually take care to conceal the extravagances of the imagination.”
Costello though, as the author sets her out at least, is as good as a polemicist in the public lectures where she is invited to speak.
Within a few paragraphs of her first long monologue about the philosophy of vegetarianism, I wondered whether I was actually listening to Coetzee’s real opinions because the arguments the character makes are so heartfelt. (A glimpse at the Acknowledgments section placed on the final page confirms that several of the chapters called “Lessons” were in fact published as non-fiction previously).
Later in the book, after Costello publicly compares abattoirs with the Nazi’s murder camps, we read variations on the first meat-free-living theme. “A sparrow knocked off a branch by a slingshot [or] a city annihilated from the air: who dare say which is worse?” a narrator asks on Costello’s behalf. 

Even the smell of a boiled egg “nauseates her” and this extreme Buddhist-like respect for the sacredness of all life swings between wholly convincing and repetitive ranting. It takes up large parts of the book, as does a dry examination of Greek myths.
In one of the most moving sections though, Costello talks about what she ultimately believes in when she has to justify herself. In lovely images she explains where frogs live during Australia’s long dry spells. 

Oddly, it is here that she seems to be speaking for the writer in general, saying this “is a story I present transparently, without disguise.”
The book is lifted and somewhat lightened by the contents of a letter that Costello writes to her sister, who is a nun. In a surprisingly erotic scene, she tells of her lack of inhibition and displays of “humanity” one afternoon in her younger years.
Religion plays a key part in the book and a clever analysis of “The Virgin” Mary is a highlight. Costello ultimately has a strange belief in the devil but not in god and this forms a counterbalance with her sister and another author she battles with.
I also speculated about the possibility of Costello having been modelled on the great writer, VS Naipaul, clearly also a real arrogant doo-dah and a highly selective eater but undoubtedly deserving of his Nobel Prize for titles such as “A House for Mr Biswas”. Costello is best known for her novel “The House on Eccles Street”.
JM Coetzee’s semi-autobiographical “Boyhood” is a tighter, more consistent book than “Elizabeth Costello” but this book about a strong-minded woman is still certainly worth a read.

(This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2019.)

Saturday, January 12, 2019

"Belgian-Canadian student faces up to 8 years in prison after protest in Hungary"

"A Belgian-Canadian university student and DiEM25 member is facing up to eight years of jail-time after being arrested during a spontaneous protest in front of the Hungarian Parliament on the evening of December 12.

Adrien Beauduin, a PhD student in Gender Studies at Central European University, was arrested along with four other protesters, who are all being charged with collective assault on a public official. Police charges allege that all five who were arrested, including Beauduin, used their left arm to strike a police officer and then kicked in the direction of a police officer.
According to videos and photos from the event, as well as witnesses present, Beauduin did not attack any police officers. Available video footage of the demonstration shows him standing calmly before being swept up when police charged the crowd.
“I am being charged with a very serious crime that I did not commit,” says Beauduin. “I am afraid for my future and the future of my fellow protestors.”
If found guilty of the police charges Beauduin will face a prison sentence ranging from a minimum of two years to a maximum of eight years."
Read more from source (and donate to help) here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

"Climate change refugees?"

[Photo credit: 
David Gray/Reuters]
"Millions of people have to move each year due to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change.

We talk about "climate refugees"...but [in a legal sense] they don't exist. In fact, those displaced by climate change have no special protections under international law. But that may be changing."

The UN is finally recognising this fact.

More from source at PRI here.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

"The market forces cult" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today




The illusion that has been successfully sold to most of the people across our planet is that anyone can become wealthy if they work hard.

This is no more than a spin-off of the Protestant work ethic.

It is true that less affluent individuals in society can occasionally ‘rise’ to the (now rapidly shrinking) middle classes, as conservatives and other market forces cultists assure us.

They might even make it into the rich elite.

But, as a consequence, this increasingly remote possibility naturally pits one person against another in a battle, not necessarily for survival, but for a limited number of shaky footholds at where the excess is.

Clearly, it is impressed on every aspiring rich man or woman, the only way you can get near being moneyed is at the expense of others.

The trick that has deluded much of our society is that those forces of the free market work in the interests of the majority. We are now wakening to the undeniable fact that this current economic and social arrangement continues to deny the basic humanity of most of those who live as part of it.

Free market dogma expressly state that ‘labour,’ meaning people who work, must be subject to ‘supply and demand’ in exactly the same way as inanimate objects are in the economy. A human “resource” is therefore no more ‘valuable’ than a tree or a piece of coal, or even a purely abstract concept like a dollar bill.

If this entity called “the market” decides that a unit of labour (a human being) has to be paid less, has to work longer or shorter hours, has to move location, or has to effectively vanish into thin air, then nobody should stand in the way.

The free market cultists maintain that it is not the role of a government or a trade union or anyone else to prevent the operation of this always ‘reliable’ market.

The cult of market forces is not only one that deceives others but is duping its own followers as well. It is mistaken about some important aspects of human nature.

Their most serious error is that the doctrines of this cult are entirely based around the central idea that consumers will without fail, act rationally and in their own personal interest.

In other words, every individual, whether they are a child making their first purchase of a chocolate bar that they happened to see advertised on TV; someone choosing a sexual partner, or selecting between Coca-Cola or Pepsi; or even a chain-smoker with lung cancer buying their last cigarette: they all do so, every time for one reason only.

So, we are making supposedly rational and self-interested decisions in every waking moment.

This suggests then that there is a cold, quite detached weighing up of the pro’s and con’s before all choices.

It exists in the mind of a drunken man, or a psychotic killer, or a hormonal teenager, in a hateful army Lieutenant, or in a neurotic housewife.

It must be there in the gambling addict, too. Before he or she spends them self into complete poverty, maybe they can be consoled with the thought that at least it is in their self-interest. The economic rationalist textbooks say so, anyway.

But, what then is the core belief about the mystical entity called The Market?

According to the cult it is, in short, a ‘mechanism’ that ensures that the ‘demands’ of all consumers for goods (for example, petrol) and services (for example, a train ride) are met by the ‘supply’ of all producers (given available resources.)

This so-called “market equilibrium” (that is, the money-price paid by consumers) will vary depending on how much consumers are prepared to pay for each and every good or service.

This concept of the free market is based on the old-style market place, where traders would display their homegrown vegetables or the family’s handmade clothes physically in front of them at their open-air stall.

Buyers would walk up and haggle with each shopkeeper over the price of what they were interested in. A price might be eventually agreed upon, and a purchase could then take place.

In the medieval-age of simple village squares and relatively limited consumer expectations, this basic economic model might have made some common sense.

Today, and for some time now, it is surely absurd to continue living based on these out-dated principles in a modern global society that is technologically fast-paced, and massively productive.

The market though, is the vehicle for humanity’s continuing progress, argues the cult. It guarantees economic growth in its ‘natural’ cycles they say. In truth, what it does certainly create is a mentality that defines “winners and losers.”

Little money equals big loser. Success is measured by the size of your wallet or bank balance.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, December 2018.]


Saturday, December 1, 2018

My next book soon to be published by Apocryphile Press

[Photo of  abandoned building in Catalonia: probable book cover by John French]
Very happy to say that "Slow Travels in Unsung Spain," my next non-fiction title will be published by Apocryphile Press (USA) some time in 2019.


​Partly from a desire to remind myself why I live here, the book is a very personal exploration of parts of the Iberian peninsula that are typically overlooked by foreign tourists, including the regions of 
Extremadura and Asturias, the urban areas of Zaragoza, Cordoba, Ecija, Jaen and Ubeda, as well as Catalonia.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

“The EU declared war and Theresa May played along” -- Yanis Varoufakis

[Photo: Barcelona, 9 Nov. 2017, 
 "In 2016, shortly before the EU referendum, Yanis Varoufakis warned that the UK was destined for a “Hotel California Brexit”: it could check out but it could never leave. 

The former Greek finance minister spoke from experience. In 2015, his efforts to end austerity – “fiscal waterboarding” – were thwarted by the EU (a struggle recorded in his memoir Adults in the Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment).


Theresa May’s draft Brexit deal confirmed Varoufakis’s prophecy: the UK would be condemned to purgatory. 
With fortuitous timing, on the evening that May’s agreement was published, Varoufakis delivered an Oxford Union lecture on Europe’s future. [He] wryly remarked that Conservative cabinet ministers praised his analysis in private.
“The UK should never have entered the negotiations,” he told me when we met afterwards. “You do not negotiate with the EU because the EU does not negotiate with you. It sends a bureaucrat, in this case it was Mr Barnier…they could have sent an android, or an algorithm.”
May’s fatal error, Varoufakis said, was to accept a two-phase negotiation: a divorce agreement followed by a new trade deal. “This was a declaration of war because Barnier said: ‘You will give us everything we want: money, people, Ireland. And only then will we discuss what you want.’ Well, that isn’t a negotiation, that’s a travesty. And Theresa May agreed to play along.”
Read more from article in The New Statesman here.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Video: "The politically abandoned"

 

As well as the above short film (with English subtitles) there is this fascinating and insightful study on right-wing strongholds in deprived populations across France and Germany that recently found...

"There is a considerable discrepancy between the issues that people view as the ‘biggest problems’ facing their country (which are immigration and the economy) and the challenges that they face in their everyday lives (precarious working conditions, worries about money and declining social infrastructure). 

Media and politics at the national level are criticised for not having properly adopted this ‘citizens’ agenda’. This problem also results in a sense of unfairness and disadvantage.

As such, when people in these regions devalue others, especially migrants, they do so as a reaction to their own experiences of devaluation (this follows the ‘logic of comparative devaluation’). Importantly, the interviews demonstrated no intrinsic patterns of xenophobia.

The central narratives employed by the populists are far less prevalent in their strongholds than is generally assumed. 
When people are asked to describe political contexts in their own words, issues such as Islamisation, Euroscepticism, sweeping criticism of the media and the emphasis on national identity hardly ever crop up. Instead, more often than not the European Union, for example, tends to be viewed as part of the solution, not the problem.
Nationalist clamouring or demands that include a ‘Germany first!’ approach, are ultimately based on the view that politics sets the wrong priorities and focuses on issues that do not reflect the realities of people’s everyday lives. 
However, the interviewees did not necessarily view measures aimed at tackling the refugee crisis, or foreign policy commitments, as fundamentally wrong. 
Nevertheless, the interviewees often believed that a focus on immigration and foreign policy tended to result in less investment and fewer policy measures at the local level that would help tackle the tangible challenges that these people face in their everyday lives. 
This includes increased economic pressure faced by people on low incomes and the gaps in public services. Finally, many interviewees believe that politics has withdrawn from certain social and geographical areas. Importantly, this feeling has led to a strong sense of abandonment.

Conclusions...


Areas now exist which are marked by ‘political abandonment’. 
To regain the trust of the people who live in these areas, it will be necessary to establish a local presence, provide recognition and resolve the problems that they face. 
This study outlines five relevant fields of action as a means of contributing towards this aim:
  • solidarity with the resident population is essential if solidarity is to be expressed with newcomers;
  • infrastructure as a means of promoting equal opportunities;
  • strengthening structures through the presence of political parties at the local level;
  • make structural change compatible with society;
  • and confidence and assertiveness in the face of right-wing populist narratives."

To download the full study from Zentrum click here.



Saturday, November 10, 2018

"The giving game" -- My latest opinion article for Catalonia Today magazine


[Mick Jagger. Photo: EFE]


One day near the start of autumn I was watching that uniquely ex-British empire sport of cricket on TV. England were playing India somewhere in the UK and the equally unique face of Rolling Stones front-man Mick Jagger appeared on my screen.

He was shown drinking a long glass of sparkling wine, and was mixing with expensively dressed men and women. They were part of the crowd at this match and the TV commentators made sure to refer to him as "Sir Mick."

Apart from the polished hypocrisy of a once rebel and anti-establishment figure like Jagger allowing himself to be 'knighted' by a woman who, by simple birthright has inherited the title of The Queen of England, I was soon to learn of another example of his double-standards.

As the (Sky channel) TV commentators were quick to point out, Jagger was offering to donate money to a charity named Chance to Shine. In a sport still hugely dominated at adult level by white men from the wealthiest of private schools, this charity says that it "works to make cricket available to young people in state schools and other communities."

The catch that disturbed me was that Jagger had pledged to hand over between £10,000 and £20,000 but only each time one of the players did his definition of a good performance for their national team.

Quite possibly none of them would be able to achieve the specifics of what he was asking for. Alternatively, there was also the possibility of several of them doing well enough for Jagger to give up to about £100,000 or possibly more.

Of course, I'm not against the existence of charities and I fully acknowledge the great work that many do. I have also written about the huge moral and ethical inconsistencies that some charities operate under, as I did nine years ago in an investigative article on The Polaris Project in the USA.

My complaint is that people like Mick Jagger and other noted celebrities, while obviously giving needed funds to organisations working as NGOs, are using the act of donation as little more than an ego trip or some kind of casino-like, grown-up playtime.

If Jagger can afford to give say £100,000 to help develop young cricketers then why not just just give it? Instead he turns the whole thing into some kind of measly piece of cheap entertainment for himself and his acquaintances while they sip their costly drinks and nibble on each other's vanity.

Sitting in continental Europe watching my TV in that moment, far from the sporting action, I imagined a group of little British boys and girls being told that financial help with their cricketing passion was not possible because the money had run out.

Depending on the vagaries, luck and chance of thirteen men on a field, maybe if one or two of the cricketers had just hit the ball a metre further, their places in the Mick Jagger-sponsored program would have been guaranteed.

In the corporate boxes where Jagger was likely to be, there might have been some back-slapping, congratulating him about what a damn fine fellow he was for being so generous. Instead, I imagined Jagger chatting away to the well-heeled around him, barely watching the game itself, completely indifferent about how many kids his little scheme was going to actually touch. Or not.


[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, November 2018.]

Saturday, November 3, 2018

"From Boys to Men" -- My upcoming workshop for teen boys in Barcelona

[Collage: John French]

How can Teen boys grow personally and develop their identity in a positive way? What role does gender play in the development for boys? What is masculinity today?  

As author of The Remade Parent, as well as being a former secondary school teacher and father of a teenage boy, I am leading this interactive and engaging 2 hour workshop where your son, from the age of 11 to 15, will explore what becoming a young man in today’s world means for both himself and his relationships.

This time spent together will include open dialogue, personal growth/trust exercises and professional mentoring in a safe environment.




Details: 13 November, 18.30 - 20.30 (Address: Calle Teodora Lamadrid, specifics To Be Supplied on request.)

Investment: 20€
Places limited 
To reserve, contact co-host: niki@shinesparkleradiate.com or WhatsApp Niki a message on 639781994

Saturday, October 27, 2018

"By land and by sea: Salvini’s war on immigration in Italy"


[Piazza duca d’Aosta, Milan, Italy (2016). Photo source: Wiki Commons]

"Salvini’s war against immigration is being waged by land and by sea. 


It is a war against a section of society that makes up over eight per cent of the country’s population. 


By sea, the war is being waged through a criminalization of humanitarian rescue operations. 

The decree recently approved by [his] Italian government restricting the right to asylum is the terrestrial counterpart to the criminalization of NGOs operating in the Mediterranean. 

This not only pertains to operations carried out by foreign NGOs, which are accused of failing to observe the sovereignty of national borders, but also to operations carried out by the Italian Coast Guard itself. 

This is a schizophrenia typical of authoritarianism and amounts to a call on the state authorities to close ranks.
The climax to Matteo Salvini’s ongoing campaign against humanitarianism, it will have a fundamental impact on the management of migration within the country..."


Read more from source at EuroZine here.


Friday, October 19, 2018

Australian poet reading at the University of Barcelona



The Australian poet, Peter Bakowski, will be doing a public reading from his work at the University of Barcelona in Gran Via on:

Monday 22 October 9.30-11 a.m. in Room 107;

Wednesday 24 October 4.00-6.30 p.m. in Room 102b.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

"A few sparks" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Ambling through the modern centre of Sant Joan Despí [near Barcelona] recently, I came across a kind of historical relic barely seen in this era of celebrity websites, corporate sponsored blogs and fake news.

Lying disregarded on an outdoor cafe table was a copy of a small magazine. I picked it up, looked at it and decided it to take it away and read it.

The name of this Spanish language colour mag was Chispas, or ‘Sparks.’ The cover illustration showed, with for sale and rent signs on top, a block of new apartments, circled by a snare trap with jagged teeth. The accompanying headline in red and white capitals stated: ‘THE COST OF LIVING IS MAKING US POOR.’

This was what encouraged me to take the magazine and explore it further; that and the fact that the layout and graphics inside looked more like it had been printed some time during the 1990s. With a price at just €3, this issue (number 183) filled 66 pages.

Reading through ‘Chispas’ on the way home on a delayed RENFE train, I found that its contents confirmed to me so much that is great about European left wing politics but also a few things that are still wrong with it. The first featured story on the inside cover (with picture) related Spain’s average monthly salary of €1,000 to housing costs in many cities here being between €500 and €700 euros a month.

This article was preceded by a letters page (Trump, the need for a public bank; the wolf-pack rape case and food prices.) The other main items focused on arguments against NATO, the progressive-left political ‘earthquake’ (or landslide) at the Mexican elections and two interviews; one with with a local scientist and one with the head of a LGBT collective: ‘40 Years of Pride.’

As well as the range and breadth in variety of these and the rest of the articles, what also struck me as I read through ‘Chispas’ was the detail and the high standard of research. Yes, some of the writers tended towards polemic points of view at times but overall the language was clear and simple, though surely a bit too academic in places.

A three-page piece picking apart the Partido Popular primary elections beautifully highlighted their current weaknesses, another longer feature looked intelligently at the serious plight of self-employed or independent ‘autonomos’ in Spain and another equally well put-together section criticised the failure of the European Union’s policies on the question of refugee and migrant human rights.

I couldn’t help wondering though, who actually reads this type of humble publication? Apart from people like me who are political animals and the most ardent of trade unionists or party members, who would actually part with the three euros to get your hands on a copy and then do more than look at the bold print or graphics?

The great problem with these kind of wonderful little things is that they are essentially preaching to the converted. Those who are indifferent to the kinds of topics they write about or the politically undecided will never hear their persuasive points. That is probably something of a sad truth.

In my final moment of reading the magazine I looked at the name of the organisation who had printed this highly informative mixture of quality progressive thinking and occasional close-minded dogma: Unificacion Comunista de España, based in Valencia.

[This article was first published in the October edition of Catalonia Today magazine.]


Saturday, October 6, 2018

"Why the left is failing in Europe (but not in the UK) and the need for a New Deal through DiEM2"



"On BBC HARDtalk Stephen Sackur speaks to Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's radical leftist finance minister at the height of the economic crisis, and an advocate of a new global progressive politics. The old certainties in European politics are crumbling. Voters seem fed up with the long established supremacy of the parties of centre right and centre left. The politics of identity and raw emotion have fuelled populist insurgencies from Italy to Sweden to eastern Europe. Mostly it's the right, not the left in the ascendant..."


Friday, September 28, 2018

"Crimes of solidarity’ in Europe multiply -- 11 stand trial in Belgium for helping migrants"

[The September 6, 2018, trial of 11 people who have helped migrants in Belgium has attracted a number of protesters. Photo: Melissa Vida. Used with permission.]
 "Eleven people who had been arrested and charged with human trafficking in October 2017 appeared in court in Brussels on September 6, the first hearing of a trial that activists say is yet another case of “criminalization of solidarity” in Europe.

The defendants have allegedly assisted 95 undocumented migrants, including 12 minors, to travel from Belgium to the United Kingdom last year, either by hosting them in their homes, by lending them phones and thereby indirectly helping them cross the channel.
On the day of the trial, three hundred people protested in front of the courthouse. Demonstrators say this is a political trial, aimed at dissuading people from helping migrants by establishing an intimidating judicial precedent.
The defendants are two Belgian journalists, one Belgian-Moroccan social worker, a Tunisian man who is a legal Belgian resident and seven people who are undocumented migrants themselves. Eight of the defendants have been in jail since the arrest.
Belgian law states that there must be a monetary transaction involved for an act to be framed as human trafficking, something the defendants deny ever happening. However, the relationship between the migrants and their helpers seems to fall into a legal grey area, raising fears that the law's scope is unjustly being expanded to target activists.
Myriam Berghe, one of the two journalists, said in an interview with RTBF (Belgium's public service broadcaster) that she's received money on behalf of a migrant she was hosting. The migrant in question had been sent money from abroad via Western Union, Berghe says, but had no way of collecting it due to having no papers. What for Berghe was simply an act of kindness, in the eyes of the authorities was payment for smuggling.
In the same interview, she explains that despite some of the people she's hosted being smugglers themselves, she wouldn't consider them “human traffickers...”
Read more from source at Global Voices here.

Friday, September 21, 2018

"In Hungary Many Artists Have Left The Country"

   
"[This week] the European parliament has voted to trigger the EU's most serious disciplinary procedure against Hungary, saying the country’s government poses a “systematic threat” to democracy and the rule of law. 

Gergely Nagy writes about the impact of the political right on culture in Hungary."