Thursday, 24 January 2008

London knife killings

Four times a day during term-time – once in the morning, twice at lunchtime and once again in the afternoon – the relative peace of the Red Pepper magazine office is broken by boisterous groups of teenage boys making their way to and from the nearby St Aloysius Roman Catholic school. I compete with them for pavement space or observe them from the ground-floor window sometimes when I go there. They’re loud, rowdy and occasionally troublesome but not so very different to teenage boys gathered in large numbers anywhere.

And two of them who would have been passing the Red Pepper windows four times a day this time last year have been stabbed to death in the space of just six months.

The first, back in June, was Martin Dinnegan, a bright, lively 14-year-old whose family lives a few hundred yards from me, killed outside the chip shop just around the corner from where I brought up my daughter. A 15-year-old has been charged with his murder.

The second was Nassirudeen Osawe, Nass, killed on Islington’s main shopping street two days after Christmas and four days shy of what should have been his 17th birthday. He, too, lived down the road from me. In his case, too, another teenager is the alleged killer.

According to the Metropolitan Police, 27 teenagers were killed in London in 2007. Most of them were the victims of knife attacks; most involved some sort of conflict over territory or group affiliation or ‘respect’, even though most of the victims were not themselves involved with gangs or associated activity.

I’d like to think that this is all the result of deprivation, social inequality and a shortage of facilities such as youth clubs. But it isn’t.

There is clearly something going on culturally that is causing heightened levels of violence among teenage boys and young men. The solutions, like the causes, are complex, but the pat notion that it’s all, or even largely, to do with material conditions simply isn’t good enough.

I grew up in a testosterone-charged environment of adolescent male rebellion and aggression. I was expelled from school at 15 (though I found my way back into education again later due to a combination of personal will, parental influence and the solid foundation of learning and inspiration provided by teachers at a previous school).

But there were cultural limits, shared values within our teenage peer groups at the time that put a brake on even the most extreme behaviour. Not the least of these was the notion that certain forms of violence were not acceptable, that they were, in fact, cowardly – unmanly even. The limits were framed in terms of basic negatives: you don’t pick on someone smaller than yourself; you don’t kick someone when he’s down; you don’t use knives or other weapons.

I can’t help feeling that the development of a climate of young male opinion in which the carrying and use of knives, guns and other weapons is held up as being cowardly would do more to turn boys and young men against doing so than any manner of other measures that do nothing to challenge their sense of machismo.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Coffee pot

It’s not just the ‘smart shops’ that are under threat in Holland. Many of its famous ‘coffee shops’, where the sale and consumption of marijuana has been tolerated since the 1960s, also face closure under a forthcoming smoking ban.

There are at least 3,000 such establishments in Holland, catering for many hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the country each year specifically because of its liberal attitudes on such matters. So they carry a lot more economic and political clout than the smart shops.

One consequence is that Holland’s smoking ban is likely to have more ‘get out clauses’ than the UK one. And some coffee shop proprietors are also looking at moving into the pizza business, with a whole new range of toppings to cater for their particular clientele.

Liberty capped

I’ve had a fair bit of experience of recreational drug taking over the years, legal and illegal, and by far and away the most benign substance I’ve come across in terms of its physical after-effects is psilocybin.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, psilocybin is the active ingredient in the most popular forms of ‘magic mushrooms’. These include Psilocybe semilanceata, the ‘liberty cap’, whose distinctive nipple-topped conical heads can be found poking through the grass in well-watered meadows throughout the northern hemisphere.

For years there was an old-fashioned sort of blind tolerance towards psilocybin in Britain. It was illegal in its ‘processed’ form, but this was held not to include the fresh mushrooms, and as long as those who consumed them didn’t make too much of a public spectacle of the fact the authorities tended to turn a blind eye towards the practice.

That was all bound to change as soon as every trader with an eye for a quick profit started to exploit the loophole in the law in what turned into a hallucinogenic free-for-all at places like London’s Camden Market. A few well-publicised cases of teenagers going temporarily whacko after being sold too strong a dose of ’shrooms was all it took to provoke the inevitable moral panic and the speedy classification of psilocybes as Class A controlled substances.

Now Amsterdam, home to the ’shroom-selling ‘smart shop’, is going the same way, and those of us who enjoy the occasional entheogen experience are going to have to go back to finding or growing our own. Most people can’t be bothered with all that palaver, and since prohibition never did put a stop to the human desire for super-sensory experiences, they’ll turn to the most readily available substitutes – which will mean a quick boost in sales of manufactured chemicals from ecstasy to ketamine instead.

Holland’s conservative government has recently led a clampdown on marijuana suppliers and prostitutes, to the great delight of organised crime, which always prefers these things underground. So it was no surprise when it seized on the death of the 17-year-old French girl, Gaelle Caroff, who jumped from a building after taking mushrooms on a school visit, to order a review of the law on psilocybes.

A study published in January 2007 revealed that the emergency services in Amsterdam were called on to deal with 148 adverse reactions to psilocybes in 2004-2006. All but 14 involved foreigners, most of them Britons, who seem to possess a cultural incapacity to consume any kind of mood-altering substances in moderation.

Of course a couple of call-outs a week amounts to a tiny problem in comparison with the consequences of alcohol consumption. And no one would dream of banning alcohol because someone killed themselves as a result of drinking too much. The sensible response to such a tragedy would be proper regulation and education.

But the psilocybes, whose effects can range from the mildly giggly to the profoundly spiritual, are caught up in the international ‘war on drugs’. So despite the fact that they are neither addictive nor toxic, they will soon be declared illegal in once-liberal Holland in the same way that they were in Denmark in 2001, Japan in 2002, Britain in 2005 and Ireland in 2006. And we will have had another little liberty capped on top of the many others that have already been denied to us.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

News from Kenya

On the day that the last election results were announced in Kenya, just after Xmas 2003, I was flying out of the country, which had been my base for much of the previous two years. Mwai Kibaki had come to power as president on the back of his promise to tackle the mega-corruption surrounding his predecessor Daniel Moi. As he promised a corruption-free new era in a radio broadcast being played over the airport public address system, I was paying bribes to the airport police to get some innocuous - but to me very important - goods through customs.

It soon became obvious that little had changed. Kibaki's new political elite did their deals with the old one. No one of significance was ever prosecuted for the billions that had gone missing under the old regime; billions more went into private pockets under the new one. Now the same people, having failed to buy sufficient votes to keep Kibaki in office, have stolen the election with obvious and widespread fraud.

The best coverage I have read on the subject can be found here on the Pambazuka News website:

It is the Kenyan people who have lost the election
Firoze Manji (2008-01-03)
Kenya is entering a protracted crisis. No one really knows who actually won the presidential elections. Given the overwhelming number of parliamentary seats won by the ODM and the dismissal of some 20 former ministers who lost their seats, it seems likely that the presidential results probably followed suit. But it is no longer really a matter of who won or lost. For one thing is certain: it is the Kenyan people who have lost in these elections.

Drama of the popular struggle for democracy in Kenya
Horace Campbell (2008-01-03)
This analysis by Horace Campbell argues that the calls for peace and reconciliation by the political and religious leaders will remain hollow until there are efforts to break from the recursive processes of looting, extra judicial killings, rape and violation of women, and general low respect for African lives. The analysis is presented as a drama of three acts.

Kibaki must back down
Victoria Brittain (2008-01-03)
Victoria Brittain writes that Kenya has sworn in a president who wasn't elected with little protest from the west. The flawed poll has to be rerun if the violence is to end.

No justice, no peace!
Onyango Oloo (2008-01-03)
Onyango Oloo dissects the "save our country" media blitz ad argues that behind the non-partisanship approach might actually be making a case for a Mwai Kibaki presidency.

The choices before us: Reflections on Mwai Kibaki and the 2007 Kenya General Elections
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (2007-12-17)
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o reflects on Mwai Kibaki's presidency, the proliferation of what he terms paper parties, and the need for African democracy to speak for and to African peasants and workers - the marginalized majority.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008


Every so often, when my ankle’s working properly, I dress up as a banana and along with several hundred other people attired in various shades of yellow put on my running shoes and take part in a charity run for Leukaemia Research. (I also managed to do six miles around central London as a gorilla last September, which was damnably hot, and another six kilometres as Santa Claus in December, which was damnably cold.)

But now I find myself on the horns of an ethical dilemma because the Leukaemia Research runs are sponsored by the US banana corporation Chiquita. The corporation was fined $25 million last year after admitting to paying millions of dollars to Colombian paramilitaries between 1997 and 2004. This included a payment of about $1.7 million to the right-wing United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

The AUC has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Colombia’s ongoing civil conflict, including civilian massacres and the murder of trade unionists. It also controls a large proportion of Colombia’s cocaine exports. I came to terms with the fact that there’s no such thing as an ethical cocaine habit a long time ago, but I’m finding it difficult to decide what to do about the fact that bananas and charity runs can be equally morally dubious.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Turn of the year

There’s nothing like a forced lay-off from physical activity to give you a good excuse for bodily abuse. My last kick of my last game of football in 2007 not only saw me score a stunning winning goal (watch out for it on Goal of the Month) but also turn my ankle at entirely the wrong angle to my leg.

That kicked my ultra training schedule into touch, and the planned Boxing Day and New Year’s Day runs along with it. Since I’d already booked myself into Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death new year party, I now had no cause for moderation as the wild hedonistic delights of the Battersea Arts Centre took hold.

Two firsts, even for someone who’s led as debauched a life as me – and neither of them had anything to do with the consumption of Class A drugs, honest officer. First, I was chatted up by a gay witch, who only slightly spoilt the full effect by turning up to the event on a mop. And second, I saw in the new year in the company of two naked women who turned up on a white horse. Really. There are things to be said for turning your ankle.