Manhattan cafe

My life is dominated by reading; messages from friends, academic texts and journals, books fiction and non-fiction, the news in all its forms. What I read for the news has evolved over the years, from the BBC’s website to the front pages to the Economist. Of course I still read these, it’s how you get informed opinion quickly, and I need that; I’m a news junky. But really, that kind of media is not going to tell me anything I don’t know already.

Which is why I now read the opinion pages on both sides of the pond, Prospect, Time, the New Statesman’s and Spectator’s online blogs. But this year, my favourite thing to read is the New Yorker. Maybe it appeals to my idea of myself writing in a note-book, while flipping through a newspaper and sipping coffee in a café in Lower Manhattan (ignoring that I can’t hand write and do not like coffee in the slightest). It appeals to my liberalism and, most importantly, it tells me things I don’t know.

Or rather, it makes me think. This week, I read an article on its website on what kids cured of blindness see. Think about that. Then read this. When I was a kid, I always had this question: could two people look at the same colour but see it differently? I still don’t know, but the article appealed to me because of its links to that natural curiosity. That’s what the New Yorker does: appeals to curiosity.

On top of that it’s amazingly well written; I can’t explain how exactly, it just is. Good writing like that has a strange effect, even though it’s non-fiction I can get lost in a New Yorker article like I can get lost in a good novel. They can take me out of my suburban home and all across the world. At the end of each one, I am left in awe and pretty envious. If only I could write like that, I think. I’d really be on to something.

So from now on, that’s what I’m aspiring to – writing well enough to hypothetically be in the New Yorker. I may be trying for my entire life. But hopefully, one day, I’ll get to try while relaxing in that Manhattan café. That’ll be good enough for me.

It won’t end

The bombing has resumed in Gaza after what had looked like a promising cease-fire agreement broke down all too quickly. The two sides, Hamas and Israel, had repeatedly extended the reprieve as talks in Cairo, brokered by Egypt, continued. Alas, the talks came to naught. The negotiators were too far apart, with two key issues creating huge stumbling blocks: the economic blockade of Gaza, and Hamas’s armed capabilities. Hamas is demanding the end of the former, Israel the end of the latter. Each conditions their acquiescence on the prior action of the other side: Hamas will disarm if Israel ends the blockade, Israel will end the blockade when Hamas disarms.

And thus, as for the last fifty years, we have a stalemate. Even if this round of fighting and talking miraculously leads to a breakthrough (partial disarmament for a bit of economic relief, perhaps), the deadlock will just re-emerge in another form. Neither side has any incentive to make serious, painful concessions because they won’t gain anything if they do.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as real and important and heart-breaking as it is, is also a proxy war. The behind-the-scenes belligerents are America and Iran, two of the world’s most bitter foes. Their animosity fuels the activities of Hamas (supported by Iran) and funds the Israeli’s disproportionate response (America supplies the IDF). As with all Middle Eastern conflicts, everyone gets drawn in by the cobweb of geo-political, religious and downright cynical allegiances which smothers the region.

There is some sign that America’s blind support of Israel has become a little more conditional on good behaviour, but this is only likely to last as long as Obama’s presidency. In the long run, with a hawkish Republican or different kind of Democrat (read: one who relies on the money of the Jewish lobby) in the White House, Israel can trust in America to have its back, especially as it desperately tries to retain a foothold in the region now that many of its old dictator friends have fallen.

On the other hand, Iran backs Hamas as a mere pawn in its plan to dominate the Middle East and create a Shia monopoly on power and, in turn, belittle Washington  into leaving the region alone. For this to happen, Israel must be weakened.

Until these two begin to work together, there is little hope of peace in Palestine. The prospect seems unlikely, although they have recently found common cause with opposition to the Islamic State. It is doubtful that this small glimmer of shared aspiration will materialise into anything more; America and Iran are still on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, a conflict not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

The best bet is to appeal to Iran’s craving for stability, and to tweak sanctions in response to its behaviour – good or bad. In the US, it is time that politicians on all side explain that a wish to see a two-state solution in Palestine is not an abandonment of Israel. Until we end the proxy war, rounds of violence will continue to devastate Gaza. Don’t hold your breath.

The fickle media

The news this summer has been particularly grim; ebola has ravaged Western Africa, massacre has ranged from Ukraine, to Iraq, to Israel-Palestine. These events have rightly dominated the front pages and news bulletins, accompanied by haunting photos of the civilians caught up in them – a little girl in a Gazan hospital, a young boy forced to flee Mosul, the thousands of people who lined the route from Eindhoven air base to Hilversum in the Netherlands travelled by the hearses which carried the bodies of those killed on flight MH17. The world felt these people’s pain.

But the newspapers have only so many pages, the news programs have only so much time, and new events replace old. The media has to keep one step ahead of waning public opinion, which gets bored of a story within just a few days. Profits matter. And so we no longer hear of the war in Syria, where the death toll is now 160,000. Nor do we hear much of Libya as it crumbles, forcing the US and Britain to close their embassies. In Europe, we hear little of the thousands of children who have turned up, starving, scared and alone, on the Texas/Mexico border and who face an uncertain future. The crises in the CAR and Mali are unreported outside France, and we have long forgotten the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls whose story once captured the world’s attention.

Ignorance is the precursor to powerlessness. You have to know about a problem to do something about it, and the media has a duty to keep people informed. The media should not just reflect society, but also lead it. It should remind people of problems which are long-running, not just headline-grabbing ones. That is how public opinion is formed, and how change happens. For public opinion is a stronger force than people give it credit for. Israel is terrified of going so far that it loses American backing or inflames the boycott movement. Putin’s meddling in Ukraine is based on calculations about popularity at home. But because these issues aren’t going to be addressed for long, those causing so much damage will simply get away with it, as the media moves on.

Punish Putin – really

Over the past two weeks, I spent six days doing work experience at the Week. The magazine aims to give readers a summary of the week’s news and what the national and foreign media had to say on it, and so I spent many hours scouring the web’s top blogs for any interesting editorial content. So I watched, almost in real time, the world’s reaction to the MH17 disaster.

By Monday, the editorial columns were all spewing the same message: the West had to stand up to Putin. (Russia Today, meanwhile, kept insisting that Ukraine had designed the tragedy to turn the West against Russia – a story which became increasingly convoluted as more and more evidence to the contrary emerged). And yet for all the moral outrage, which felt more than a little self-righteous, none of the editorials really promoted any solid policies. “Punish him,” they crooned, “but we can’t tell you how”. And all gave politicians room for inaction – “whatever you do, don’t jeopardise the gas supply” could have been the headline on every broadsheet.

Nevertheless, pressure did grow, and the politicians predictably fell over themselves rushing to look tough on Putin. Cameron wrote a cringe-worthy letter to the Times, vowing to lead Europe in imposing punitive sanctions against the Russian President and his numerous cronies. Yet Germany, the EU’s diplomatic heavyweight, fretted about all that gas, and France went ahead with the sale of a new warships to Russia’s army.

It was a poor showing, where economic self-interest won over any sense of moral duty. It was also a depressing example of short-termism; Cameron was actually right when he raised the spectre of appeasement. Putin is no Hitler, obviously, but the same logic applies – the more he is allowed to do, the more he will do. It was the same in Syria, where the bloodshed hasn’t stopped since last year’s chemical weapons attack went unpunished by the West. As many warned, the rebel’s resentment of their neglect grew, and out of the chaos came ISIS – which is now presenting the biggest threat to Western security since al-Qaeda in its early-2000s heyday. Inaction has unintended consequences too.

The last few years have proved the West weak and divided. Where once it stood for decisive action, it is now a mass of dithering. So what, really, could the West do about Putin?

Sanctions. At the moment, Western sanctions only affect a dozen or so of Putin’s cronies. They basically don’t do anything. Instead, trade with Russia should be wound down, putting its economy under some serious strain. Russia should be unceremoniously thrown out of the G8 and G20; and NATO should make its remaining power felt by beefing up its forces  in Eastern Europe. This isn’t about threatening a new Cold War, but making it clear that the current world order will be protected – and that there are consequences to shooting a civilian airliner out of the sky.

Putin’s main concern has always been his domestic support. Causing the already anti-Putin Muscovite middle-class some economic pain will force him to make concessions in order to remain powerful at home; not least reeling in the Eastern rebels in Ukraine and stopping transfers of weapons across the border. This may take a few weeks as he seems to have lost his control of the situation, so in the immediate future he needs to secure access to the crash site for international observers and stop the rebels tampering with the evidence.

There comes a time when a sense of right and wrong should take priority over economic calculation. 298 people were shot from the sky, they deserve justice – gas supply or not.

Life with cerebral palsy: a little reflection

I never thought I would write anything like this piece. The internet is a harsh place, not somewhere you’d choose to write about the hardest aspects of your life. But after reading this piece by a fellow blogger, and after an illuminating first year at university, I decided that maybe the truth shouldn’t be so scary. I have come to accept a lot this year, and I want to share that with you. Here’s (just a little bit of) my story.

I have cerebral palsy. I have long accepted the harsh truth of this fact: I have brain damage, I will never walk. I need help to get dressed, eat, shower, go to the loo and anything else physical. Fine. I’ve never known any different and, honestly, I don’t care. It always amazes people when I tell them this; but it’s only half the truth. There are also social aspects of disability, and because these are harder to talk about, I often just don’t.

As a child, I was blissfully unaware of much of what was coming my way, but since struggling to make friends at secondary school I’ve been keenly aware of society’s attitudes towards disability. At 14, no one wants to be different. No one wants to be friends with someone they see as different. That’s just the way it goes. I went to a mainstream school and was the only person with a visible disability. I was very different and it was pretty lonely.

Loneliness and boredom characterised my teenage years. Even with the friends I did have (who were some honestly amazing people) it was hard to socialise outside school because of the pervasive lack of access and my reliance on a carer or, most of the time, my parents. No one wants to take their dad to meet their friends at Starbucks, and anyway, he understandably had better things to do.

I worked hard and I did well. I found joy in writing. But it was hard, and the more I fell behind socially – as house parties and romantic relationships became the norm for many of my peers – the harder it got. There were times that were very bleak and when I thought it would never get better. My self-confidence disappeared and I lived in constant fear of the future, thoroughly convinced my cerebral palsy would stop me from achieving my strived-for goals.

Looking at the last couple of paragraphs I see a one-dimensional account of my experience of cerebral palsy, which, it is important to remember, has never dominated my life. I have always been more interested in other things. And there have always been positives to my disability, not least the wonderful people who accepted and loved me, even on the days when I couldn’t appreciate it. Some of them, I simply wouldn’t know if I had been able to accurately place one foot in front of the other, and such an ability wouldn’t be worth their absence from my life. They all know, I hope, who they are, and I love them beyond all the words in the world.

They are still here now (give or take) but rather than softening the blows of life, they are sweetening the successes. For, despite what I thought, things did get better. I have just completed my first year at university and, for the first time in a long time, I am happy. A year in, the transformation of my life still takes my breath away. The freedom afforded to me by full time care is indescribably glorious, as is that which comes from leaving behind what held me back for so long. People of 18 and 19 are amazingly open-minded, and I have met incredible friends who do not care that I cannot do very average things for myself. I have written about the joys of university already, but I am writing this as a thank you to these new people.

They will probably never understand how, but by accepting me they have allowed me to accept myself. For so many years I pretended to the world that my disability didn’t matter. This, I thought, would allow people to see past it and just make it go away. In reality, it became the elephant in the room. Now I will freely discuss cerebral palsy – I am writing this, ridiculously – and the elephant has shrunk to the occasional awkward moment when someone simply forgets that I am disabled.

I think I know that things will never be easy, and the future is still scary. The job market for every graduate is difficult – add in an electric wheelchair, speech impediment and whatnot and things get trickier still. I feel left behind when it comes to relationships, and the stats for disability and relationships aren’t good. It is hard, sometimes, to smile and nod at my friends’ escapades in this particular area. But then I remember that if they’re talking to me about it, they don’t see me as being beyond such things myself and I breathe a little easier. And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the past 19 years, it’s that a surprising number of people see me for who I really am and not for my cerebral palsy. All I need is for one of those people to be the right guy, and it’ll be ok – right? And with all the success my writing has had this past year, I am quietly hopeful for a job, too.

So no, being disabled isn’t as ‘fine’ as I make it out to be. But it isn’t half as bad as I once convinced myself it was. There is a middle ground which I am beginning, perhaps belatedly, to settle in to. And maybe in finally writing this, I have accepted cerebral palsy as part of who I am. This is my story and my truth, and I wouldn’t change it. Not now, not ever.

Iraq and the West are haunted by history

Once again, Iraq is tearing itself apart. The country’s existence as a cohesive whole is now in more danger than it was at the height of the civil war in 2006/07, when the yearly civilian death count was over 20,000. Now, with a disintegrating Syria providing an ideal base for terrorism, Iraq is being threatened by ISIS, a group aiming to establish an Islamic caliphate across much of the Middle East.

Much of the debate swirls around the controversies of Western intervention. Two apparently contradictory questions are being asked again and again: did the 2003 invasion set up the conditions for ISIS’s emergence (namely, the severe weakening of the Iraqi state, and the dominance of Nuori al-Maliki’s Shia government over minority Sunnis)? And, even so, should the West act again, to save the Iraq it spent so much blood to create?

But there is one Western act neglected in the endless news articles and opinion pieces, and it is the one perhaps most crucial in understanding ISIS’s determination to redraw the map (and, as it happens, sheds a lot of light on the recent history of both Iraq and Syria): the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917. As WWI put strain on the empires of France and Britain, the countries’ diplomats drew up a plan for a quasi-independent Middle East; dividing their territory into countries with arbitrary strokes of a pen. Thus, the region’s countries never lined up with its nations, and the stage was set for the next 100 years of bloody strife.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement failed, crucially, to distinguish between Sunni and Shia Arab areas, resulting in the formation of countries with sizeable minorities and powerful majorities. Sometimes, as was the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it is the minority group which wields power – often by force. It is hard to overstate the feelings of animosity between Sunnis and Shias, especially in the most polarised countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon); there hasn’t been peace between the two groups since the great schism after Muhammad’s death.

Al-Maliki’s divisive style of government has not helped matters, but it is naïve to blame the Prime Minister for all of is his country’s woes. Iraq is a product of Western imperialism – and in many ways should never have existed in its current form. ISIS is abhorrent for many reasons, but its rejection of arbitrary borders isn’t one of them; it is based, instead, on an embedded historical narrative.

So we have to ask ourselves, is Iraq’s integrity really our paramount priority? In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the West advocated self-determination for ethnic minorities, and now many countries exist where once stood just one. Surely the same right cannot be denied to the peoples of the Middle East. And yet, the consequences of the dissolution of Iraq are hard to fathom, both within its current borders and worldwide. Having misguidedly brought the country into being, the West is bound to defend it. There is no righting the mistakes of history.

Untitled

Breathe in the empty sky
pale as exhaled air and washed out
by a waning sun.

‘Could have been’s
‘and should have been’s float
in the place of moths,

transparent papery fancies,
never as real as the earth
on which you’ve learnt to stand.

Wanderlust

I have to go. 
I have to pack a bag and grab my wallet
and slam the front door behind me. 

I have to leave behind my keys, 
so that when nerves fail I can’t turn back. 
I need to get lost. 

I can’t go to a European city 
with a guidebook and google maps. 
It’s not worth it 

when too many people have done it before 
how are you meant to discover 
anything new about yourself?

I’m not scared of loosing myself
on some desert road. Like Saul,

I’ll find answers

in the wilderness. Or in the eyes
of another aimless wanderer
who simply had to go. 

Reading in order to write

It’s good to be writing again. Typing away to fill a blank screen with words has always grounded me. The physical and intellectual process forces me to reflect and think, properly and in a way not permitted within the strict confines of a university essay. And ultimately, it’s one of the most satisfying and rewarding things I do. Satisfying, because I almost always produce something, even if it is awful. Rewarding because I am lucky enough to have friends who take the time out of their busy lives to read whatever it is I share with them, and leave me kind comments when they do so (shout out and thanks here to Fran P who’s quickly becoming my biggest fan).

That said, I am painfully aware of my own rustiness. In the trade, writing is known to be much like a muscle; in other words: use it or loose it. At the moment, my writing muscle’s weakness is making itself apparent in an inability to think of things to write about. I have kindly been given a list of contacts in the journalism world by a journalist friend, but need to think of article ideas to pitch before I send off emails. I am sure that an established journalist would appreciate the freedom to generate their own ideas like this, but as someone just starting out I would dearly love for someone to just tell me what to do. I would happily oblige.

It’s not that I don’t have things I’d like to write about; it’s that I don’t know what to say about them – a problem I’ve already bemoaned here (do I moan about this a lot?). But, on a positive note, I am getting there. Since exams finished, I have been able to read proper magazines again – Time, Prospect, the New Yorker, the Economist – and, through them, to work out my own opinions. I am also looking to get back into fiction; not just reading novels, something I have woefully neglected these past few months, but also writing poetry. Don’t expect me to start posting poetry all the time (most of it will be for my eyes only) but know that I will at least be attempting the odd verse. I was paid a visit today by an old school friend and writing buddy – we went to Arvon together – and was reminded how much I enjoy the challenge of a poem. On my shelves here I have collections by Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, T.S. Elliot and Carol Ann Duffy, as well as an anthology full of the work of female poets. Perhaps dipping into them will lead me somewhere.

That’s all for now; although I leave you with the exciting news that I have just been offered work experience at the Week. Now it, too, will be added to my expanding list of reading materials. All good and enjoyable exercise for that writing muscle.

On the end of first year

I remember how I used to long for the summer. How I used to count down the days until exams were over and I could relax. There would be sweetness in knowing that I didn’t have to go to school for eight glorious weeks; a feeling magnified last summer when I finished my A-levels and looked forward to a future I could only imagine.

That future has exceeded all expectation. My first year at Warwick has been the best year of my life, and although I am glad to have finished exams once again, it is the coming final four weeks of term which I am looking forwards to – not the summer holidays. For going home involves leaving this place and all the people who I have come to love here and – although next year is just around the corner – I just don’t want my first year at university to end.

The solution to this, I feel, is to make the most of the next month. I shall be writing as much as I can, preparing for my term as editor of PolSoc’s Perspectives magazine next year and lots of obligatory partying. Another night at Warwick’s infamous Skool Dayz is on the horizon, as well as the summer party. More importantly, I am sure I will have many chilled-out film nights with the brilliant friends I have made here, and I am sure that they will, as ever, descend into late night conversations and side-splitting laughter. At the end of the day, it is those un-photographed moments which are the essence of the university experience.

Amongst all the frivolity I will also be searching high and low for writing opportunities and summer work experience. I expect this will involved sending many an email and not receiving many responses, but that’s just the way journalism works. As they say, you’ve got to be in it to win it, so in it I shall be. Successful or not, at least looking for work teaches you a lot about the industry. I’ll let you know how I get on.

And I guess going home won’t be all that bad! I’ve got a girls’ holiday to Barcelona to look forward to, and seeing all my old friends. And of course, I shall be swapping the calmness of campus for the hubbub of my beloved London. Really, I can’t complain. Another year of education may be over, but there’s a whole lot of fun to come.