Mr Pilger & the revolution

John Pilger has made this film, which focuses on Venezuela but expands to cover Latin America at large and the region’s bloody relationship with the empire to the North. In many ways it’s a very good film. It’s long for a documentary – about 93 minutes – but, in the words of so many TV eds who believe we all have the need for speed, pacey. And I’m afraid I don’t think it’s so fantastic. It’s not enough, today, for someone as experienced as Pilger to make a documentary about Chavez which is so uncritical. As I’ve said on the Lenin’s Tomb blog, the European Left (a crude reduction, forgive me) do the Venezuelan people no good by supporting Chavez without being prepared to criticise him too. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen too many national liberation movements go sour, go corrupt, go brutal, and go – shall we say – to bed with the wrong people. It’s all about power, innit. I’m in favour of Chavez, and certainly in favour of his struggle to stand up to the US empire, however we (abroad, particularly those of us living in the wishy-washy West) risk being shown up to be extremely naive if we support him hook, line and sinker. Pilger makes one slightly small attempt to challenge Chavez, but no more. That’s in a programme of 93 minutes. Why not query him further? Press the man’s buttons? What was Pilger so worried about? I’m not saying he should have tried to set him up, merely to ask him proper questions. Because if Chavez is not called to account by the very people who sympathise with him – including well-known investigative journalists – he will slowly start to forget that he is a representative of many people, and start to think he’s the only one with the answer. And that will be disastrous.

I like to remember what V.S. Naipaul wrote, very critically, of Gail Benson and her relationship (whatever that was) with Trinidadian Michael Abdul Malik (Michael X). He implied that she was one of those who continue to simplify the world and reduce other men—not only the Negro—to a cause, the people who substitute doctrine for knowledge and irritation for concern, the revolutionaries who visit centers of revolution with return air tickets, the hippies, the people who wish themselves on societies more fragile than their own, all those people who in the end do no more than celebrate their own security.’

The Book

An extract:

“The challenge journalists face in trying to explain conflicts in a limited amount of time and space is immense. There is a tendency, seen for example in the mainstream coverage of the so-called war on terror, to reduce wars to the good versus evil narrative. The reality is usually far fuzzier. In the case of African conflicts, however, foreign journalists often appear to avoid the good versus evil structure. Unfamiliar with the wars themselves, there is a tendency to present them as an anarchical mess, unique to Africa, where people are just fighting for the sake of it in a pitiful display of madness.[i] Bernard-Henri Lévy, a well-travelled journalist and philosopher, falls straight into this trap. He concludes that the wars in Burundi, Sudan and (formerly) Angola are what he calls ‘the forgotten wars of the twenty-first century’:[ii]

“…for the first time in the modern era, and because the great narratives that provided meaning have fallen silent, great masses of men are caught in wars without aim, without clear ideological stakes, without memory, as the wars last for decades, perhaps without outcome – and where it is sometimes difficult indeed to tell, between protagonists who are drunk with equal parts of power, money and blood, where lies the true, the good, the least evil, the desirable.[iii]

“Lévy contrasts these ‘hidden’ wars with: ‘…serious wars, which have a meaning. There still exist in the Near East, for instance, wars where everyone can see that the fate of the world is at stake.’[iv] In dividing wars into two groups – those he sees as fuzzy, confusing, nonsensical ones versus the weighty, grown-up, meaningful ones – Lévy reveals his own ignorance. Why, for example, does he assume that ‘everyone’ views wars in the Near East in the same way? I doubt that the female peasant in eastern Congo thinks that the conflicts of the Great Lakes region in Central Africa are any less meaningful than the war between Israel and Palestine. From where she stands, the fate of her world is at stake in South Kivu, not the Near East.

“Lévy’s claim that it is harder to distinguish the good and evil protagonists in African wars (such as that in Sudan) than in other wars (such as Iraq’s) highlights his myopic vision of African conflicts. While he may find it hard to distinguish the good from the bad in Darfur, it is unlikely that the Sudanese have the same problem. Perhaps they think all the sides are evil, perhaps not, but doubtless they will be able to make their own value judgments about the warring parties and their leaders. In my experience covering the Angolan and Ivory Coast wars, it is the London-based desk editors who struggle to understand how complex and fuzzy most wars are, not the locals.

“Lévy goes to quite remarkable lengths to promote the European cliché of Africa. In Angola, he sees ‘leprous slums… ten-year-old prostitutes… packs of children with nothing to do… women with gargoyle heads, men who no longer have any face at all’.[v] A little later he pronounces: ‘It is definitely a war of the squalid, of the seamy, since I’ve seen only sleazy, squalid people since I’ve been here.’[vi] So where was he looking? There are also children who go to school and women who could be on the cat-walk. Did he not visit the young men who are given roses by the town’s girls, on the eve of a battle? Didn’t he see any of them? Or did he feel they would not conform to the stereotype he had expected? When Lévy goes to the central highland city of Huambo, he finds ‘everything in turmoil’.[vii] Everything? Surely not.

“When I visited Huambo (at around the same time he was there) there was a group of nuns who made and sold moisturizing cream- Sempre Jovem – and another group of women selling pots of delicious homemade strawberry jam. These are important truths of the war, just as important as the amputees and shelled buildings. But all Lévy can see ahead of him is ‘the same devastation, the same impression of a country in tatters – a dismembered, devitalized, lunar space, where everywhere you see traces of war but nowhere its logic, its meaning, or any sign of its end’.[viii] Perhaps he did not know enough to spot the signs, to understand the meanings and logic and, indeed, the sign of its end: after all, the Angolan civil war ended a couple of years after his visit.

“One of Lévy’s final points about Angola is what he calls ‘the paradox’ of the conflict: ‘They fight each other… wherever there’s nothing but poverty, desert, villages plundered over and over… But wherever there are riches… a non-war is imposed, a gentleman’s agreement…’[ix] As I read this, I find myself pondering the so-called war on terror, replete with its own gentleman’s agreements, and wonder why Lévy believes this to be so exclusively African.[x]

“Lévy’s account of the war he ‘saw’ in Angola was published, in a shorter version, in Le Monde in the early summer of 2001. His book – which includes the essay on Angola – was described by the Jewish Chronicle as an example of ‘excellent journalism’. Yet it strikes me as a fine example of the sort of superficial response that so often emerges when foreign reporters drop in on a conflict. His analysis is trite and unhelpful. And yet Lévy was writing a whole book – his chapter on Angola is 18 pages long – whereas most reporters only have 500 words in a newspaper, or two minutes on the radio, or 50 seconds on the television. That is not enough time to explain the details of a civil war, and yet it is what the news corporations expect from a foreign correspondent. I recall a television presenter on a rolling news channel asking me, as if we were discussing the state of play on a Nintendo computer game, ‘So who’s gonna win the war Lara?’ I had 40 seconds to answer. That ever-growing desire to keep the news short and simple makes life very difficult for any reporter trying to convey the complex narrative of a war.”

At just £14.95, it’s a bloody bargain: Communicating War: Memory, Military and Media, eds Maltby, S & Keeble, R. Arima Publishing.

What the critics say:

“Communicating War is a wide-ranging and important contribution to that debate, which also has the advantage of being right up-todate. Essential reading!” Nick Couldry, Professor of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths University of London

“Communicating War is, therefore, to be welcomed. Its rich collection sets the agenda, as does the War and Media Network, from which it emerges. Crucially, the collection reminds us of that which is ‘forgotten’, which can be as important in the war-media relationship today as those things embedded in memory.” James Gow, Professor of International Peace and Security, Kings College London

“A timely and hugely valuable contribution to the scholarly literature on news about conflict and war. The range of contributors, and the variety of themes covered, make this collection essential reading for students and researchers of conflict reporting in the post-9/11 world.” Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism and Communication, University of Strathclyde.

What a nice bunch! What revolting self-publicity.

North London

The café was called a patisserieboulangerie, as if that made it more authentic. Huge panes of shining glass, pine floors, small polished wooden tables for two, and pyramid stacks of Bonne Maman conserve with false checked-cloth lids. Two trays of coffee and chocolate éclairs were priced using a small white flag attached to a wooden toothpick sunk into one of the long puff-pastries. £2.45 each. The waitresses were Polish, and didn’t mind if you paid later. The place was full of mums and toddlers, and a coke dealer.
They sat by the window watching cyclists battling with the rain and gale, and double-decker buses full of sexed-up school kids. Two pots of tea were brought on a plastic tray which the young woman left on the table. The French would definitely not do that, thought S. They sat and talked for two hours about whether either of them could trust their eyes and whether they ever knew what was really happening around them. They gave examples that became a little silly: S said she wondered if they were even in the ca
fé. How would they know if they were? How would they prove it? The kind of conversations children start to have aged seven or eight, and continue having until they grow out of it in their mid-teens. But these two had more reason than most to doubt. Especially him. At one point he asked:
‘Do you know what I can’t cope with? What I really can’t face up to?’
S shook her head, unnerved by the anxiety in his face, ‘No. God, what?’
‘The fact that my child is going to be colonised, like I was.’
They both stared out of the window into the thickening rain. Kids were playing on the green. S noticed the dealer exiting, with a young man in a short mac. She watched them shake hands on the pavement, just in front of where S and J were sitting. She watched the dealer’s fingers slide from the other man’s palm – perfectly, excellently executed – and then swiftly, the men parted.
‘What do you mean, colonised?’ S asked finally.
‘There is nothing I can do. The process is happening again.’
She looked around the room where they sat, one large French cliché, and wondered why he’d insisted on coming to this particular place. Their silence was broken by a new waitress, neither of them had noticed before. She was a deep mahogany colour, with new braids, and was smaller and prettier than the two washed-out Polish girls. She smiled and asked them if they’d like more tea. S nodded, but the young woman looked at J for confirmation before taking the order.
‘I want to leave here,’ he said. ‘This weather, this darkness, this place.’
‘Where will you go?’
J laughed, ‘Angola, of course, where I’m from!’ And then he laughed even harder, falling about. ‘I’ll go to the beach, to the parties, I’ll get my big car, my whisky, and I’ll go home!’ He laughed even more – so loudly that the Polish girls turned and stared from behind the counter. A customer in a corner looked over, irritated his newspaper read had been interrupted.

the dream after the demo

Waking up after yesterday’s protest – Heathrow! B-A-A! We don’t want your third runway! – was altogether an unpleasant experience. A dream had filled my night with depression: I had given birth to two stripy grey kittens. One died immediately at birth, the other was strong and keen to live. I began breastfeeding it, still a kitten, only to discover, as it drank the milk, that it was in fact my partner, J. Me the adult I am today, he the part-kitten, part-man of my dreams. His body was of kittens, his head the same very head I saw when I woke up. But the worst part of the dream was a post on The Sharp Side which said that Unstrung was breastfeeding a kitten who was not a real revolutionary nor a real socialist and that I should be ashamed.

Christ. Sorry Sharp Side. There we are. This must say something about yesterday’s demonstration and our role in it.

Well, here are the pictures. I think they largely speak for themselves…

Sunday, at about midday, we all set off from the camp….

‘Don’t buy flown, Grow yer own’

I was a wee bit jealous of these guys, who had strangely high voices… and gave one journalist a bit of his own medicine with a quick Q&A (and shortly, he hurried off).

All the while, we were being watched from above, by helicopters, cameras, policemen on horseback, policemen with cameras, and policemen with eyes. I didn’t count how many police were there but we were continually and at all times surrounded by them.

Everyone was treated as a threat, including this dangerous-looking man in his three-wheeler wheelchair.

… and just look at this ‘orrible lot.

No wonder they needed these beasts to control us all…

The amazing, one and only, Rinky-Dink, rolling into Sipson village. Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang blasts out from the sound system, and everyone is singing along. Yep, it was that wild.

The police hold us up for ages as we try to leave Sipson village. Mixed reports as to whether they’re trying to help us – by clearing the A road we need to cross to move onto the next village – or whether they’re trying to stop us from continuing on our way towards Harmondsworth.
Whose streets? Our streets! Whose streets? Our streets! Whose streets? Our streets!
Whose world? Our world! Whose world? Our world? Whose world? Our world!

‘You fly, We die’

Finally, we get going again and head off to Harmondsworth. The guy with the hat was powering the Rinky-Dink sound system, together with that very energetic kid infront, and singing along at the same time, into the microphone. I just can’t remember what…

Half way to Harmondsworth, and we all get stopped again. Many of us took the chance to pee in the bushes, and share deep insights with other protesters. Particularly of the female variety: a long march and endless hanging around while the police dither about is never great when you’re on. You men don’t know how lucky you are…

Patient protesters here: thought some, too patient. I overheard this:
Tall man: ‘Fucking liberals, this isn’t direct action. We should just attack!’
Shorter man: ‘Oh, shut up. We’re not doing politics on this protest!’


Another dangerous protester relaxes while waiting to enter Harmondsworth village…

… and here’s another. Meanwhile,

George Monbiot tries to negotiate with the police…

Eventually, we’re let through. I was second into the ladies’ at The Five Bells, as a long queue began to snake out of the door. A lot of the locals here were delighted to see us, but some less so:
Middle-aged woman: ‘I don’t want no fuckin’ punk spitting ‘n’ pissin’ on my village green. Give ’em one drink and get ’em out.’
Middle-aged man: ‘This pub’s gonna make a fortune outta of ’em all. Whether you like them or not, that’s gotta be good for us.’

More police (looking bored).

Eventually, we kick off again – to the main target, the BAA building. I even got a ride on the Rinky-Dink (and in case you’re wondering, that’s not me with the mic…) We were singing ‘Heath Row! B-A-A! We don’t want no third runway!’

The walk was getting very tiring… This guy went the whole way, shaming many of those who looked out of their windows and couldn’t face the rain, the wind and the police. He marched right to the end.

We saw a lot of this: people watching with their thumbs up. What a shame they wouldn’t come out and join us.

On the final leg, we passed the local detention centre, where hundreds of asylum seekers – many of them children – are being held. Someone made an announcement, that there are more asylum seekers coming into Britain today because of climate change than political reasons, which I have to say, I thought was a slightly redundant comment. How is that measured? Where does that figure come from?

Or maybe I’m being churlish… but anyway, it made me think a lot about the places those people have come from and, whatever anyone says, the fact that we can demonstrate without being shot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m also deeply suspicious of demonstrating here, particularly since it’s been used as a political weapon by the UK and US governments who say, ‘They demonstrate, therefore we are democratic’. It’s nonsense. Nevertheless, I think a lot of people haven’t got the first clue how fortunate we are – I mean, really not a clue. And – can I say this without making enemies? – I was pissed off that a few people marching (a tiny, half a handful) were way off their heads, almost unable to stand up. It does our case no good at all. I kept thinking about various countries I have worked in where few people dare demonstrate because they believe they really might be killed. I thought about the demos I’ve seen where people were killed. And then I look back at these guys, tumbling about the A4 because they’re so pissed, and I wanted to kick them way up the arse. But anyway…

We made it to BAA. Riot police all over the place. Someone said: ‘Can anyone else see a riot here? Can anyone at all?’ We all trotted into the car park, kids waiving banners, the Rinky-Dink chugging on, the wheelchairs turning, the violins being played, the guitars being strummed. Flapjacks handed out to hungry arrivals… and there were the riot police. It really was pathetic. On the right, here, is my better half, Mr J.

The police didn’t seem to know what they were doing at first. Closing us in, then moving out. They were very panicky, very angry and very aggressive. It was credit to all of us that nothing got out of hand: if it had, police provocation IMHO would have been the major factor.

We stayed a while, walked around, talked a bit, sang a few more songs about climate change, and then, a little shamefully, we left. Even that proved tricky: the police wouldn’t let us cross one road, insisting we crossed another. When asked why – we weren’t breaking the law – the guy didn’t seem to know. We tried another, he didn’t even answer, just turning his head away from us and stiffening that lower lip. The protest’s legal observers noted all this – and so much more – in their notepads. It’ll be interesting to see what the overall legal picture of the day was.

Greatest respect to those who spent the night there (the lady above, on the left, with red top and red necklace, sang for most of the day, into the Rinky-Dink mic, and had an amazing voice). It was cold and damp, and they have done us all very proud. The shame of the protest was the fact that there weren’t more people on it. Perhaps that was the location, but frankly, it wasn’t exactly far away from public transport so I’m not really sure I buy that. It was a very good idea to go through the villages that will be destroyed if all goes ahead. It was a very good idea to let the locals see that they are not alone. But what a shame there weren’t more of us.

Where, oh where, were you all?

another Schutztruppe

She’d obviously been around the block a few times. She kept saying, ‘You have no idea, you really have no idea,’ and then laughing intensely. Funny thing to say, he thought, because of course none of us really have any idea. Maybe you were a man once, he thought, now that really would be a surprise. ‘You can’t imagine! You really can’t,’ she said again, almost shouting. He nodded in agreement – and meant it. She’d lived in war zones, genocide zones, controlled zones, communist zones, capitalist zones and inner city zones. Nothing fazed her. Those local boys hanging about, shoulders swinging, shouting, a thigh hanging across a bike seat, hoods up, loitering… not even they fazed her. ‘Let’s be frank,’ she said, ‘they’re black boys, and they probably resent us, we know that.’ He nodded, and smiled gently. Not that she noticed. She was telling him about one of her former careers. She’d had so many, and always succeeded. Then he said, ‘I do get a bit nervous actually, of the boys up that end of the street. I don’t mind the ones down the other end. But that end – they really scare me.’ She was focusing on the green washing-up gloves that she was pulling over her hands, as if she was preparing to carry out surgery: ‘Oh, don’t be silly, just look straight through them. Don’t, whatever you do, show you’re scared.’ He smiled a bit, ‘I do like it round here. I do.’ But she was talking about how much she hated Tony Blair, and how upset she felt about sending her daughter to private school. ‘I’m so angry about it. Wouldn’t you feel angry?’ He tipped his head, trying to think of an answer. He was too slow. ‘My daughter’s so clever, she could teach the teachers at our local school, and I’m just not prepared for that to happen. I will not let my daughter be put through that.’ Then she laughed again. ‘I bought this place for nothing, really nothing. Done it up all myself. It cost peanuts. People say you can’t buy cheap round here, but I bought this for peanuts. You just have to be prepared to do the work yourself.’ The gloves were on now and she was exercising her fingers inside the rubber. He was looking at her long brown hair, thinking about how he’d like to stroke it and wondering how he would ever get close enough. ‘I’ve got to do this now,’ she said, adding, ‘I’m sorry.’ She dropped a pile of plates into the sink and began washing up. Occasionally, her long hair fell over her shoulder in front of her face; she pushed it back with a wet gloved hand. He watched the bubbles burst and longed to touch her hair.

Outside, an old man wearing a Schutztruppe and a beautiful silver suit with long silver tails, bicycled slowly past. A pile of old newspapers from Jamaica was tied to an old metal rack that he’d strapped to the back of his bike. He was whistling, and drunk.


Oil wells have nice names, the sort you want to stick your tongue around and through and say over and over again. Massamabala is one. In fact, it’s called Massamabala-1, which isn’t quite so seductive. But the -1 draw you out of the tongue-wrapping, into the real world, to remind you that this is business. This is oil. And this, in particular, marks the return to onshore drilling in Angola for the first time in 35 years. The operating company, Roc Oil, sent me and many others this message today:

‘The commencement of the first well in 35 years onshore Cabinda might be regarded as a significant event, but ROC’s focus is not on any sense of occasion, as much as the operational end of our business, including the continuing interaction with the local communities, who have been very supportive of our efforts to date… ‘

Of course, that’s not quite the whole story. The local communities in Cabinda are not on the whole, happy. They’ve been battling against the Angolan government in a vicious conflict for about three decades. Last year they were dealt a farcical peace deal which was fabricated by the Angolan authorities with the assistance of certain foreign governments. The man who signed the deal on behalf of the Cabindan communities was one António Bento Bembe, a former Cabindan rebel who the FBI had been after since 1990 for so-called terrorist activities. In fact he assisted in the kidnapping of an American oil worker, one Brent Swan (now a free man). Faced with the choice of prison in the US for life or signing a peace deal that would be good for the Angolan government, the oil companies and no one else really, Bembe opted for the latter. And luckily for him, the Americans forgot about his past, and were the first to congratulate the Angolans on the peace deal. They said it was ‘more than just a document on peace and reconciliation; it is the promise of economic development and increased political influence’.

Meanwhile the Cabindans continue to be very unhappy and disgruntled. Their tiny enclave produces about a third of Angola’s oil, but they reap little reward. Most are very unhappy about onshore oil drilling and there is already lots of talk among Cabindans about ‘another Niger Delta’.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for Cabinda. See what happens there. The rush for oil in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea is on. Often we hear that the real advantage is that oil in this area (apart from Nigeria’s Niger Delta) is offshore and therefore a long way from the hassle of poor, angry local communities. But that’s not the whole story. Oil companies are greedy and greed makes people very bold. Roc is onshore. It has started.

walking to the Lea

He was rolling her nipple between his fingers. She was old and overweight, so the nipple hung low near her waist. He was leaning on her, his head resting between her shoulder and the breast, and I imagined him suckling it. He would have been but her mustard-coloured T-shirt was in the way. (I would have stopped and waited but I was with another, and we were walking.) He looked very happy. Immensely pleasured, relaxed, soothed, calmed, nestled. They were both drunk. A pair of alcoholics. Pink-cheeked, ageing middle-agers who probably sleep by the canal at least twice a week. It was hot. Where else can you have a bit of slap and tickle if you haven’t got a home? Why not a park bench? As good as anywhere else. Tall blue cans surrounded them, as if they were enjoying the intimate moment within their own lager shrine. I couldn’t help wonder what he was thinking about. His mother came into my head. Remembering the last time he was that happy.

The sun was very warm. Not far away, a woman in a bikini lay on a beach towel, self-conscious but desperately trying to enjoy the heat. A little further on, another. She had one eye open, surveying the path for wierdos. A little further, and another. There must have been four or five bikini birds lying alone on Hackney’s fields. And then lots of other birds, including a huge swan that’s been sitting on its nest for weeks now. A man opposite did eighteen push-ups on the twin bars. He didn’t see me counting. I was willing him to get to twenty.

Later we drank Rioja, listened to The Clash and Nick Cave, and talked about oil in Africa and Joe Strummer. Apparently, at gigs, he used to shout out to the audience questions. Thinks like, ‘So what are you gonna do tonight?’ and ‘What are you gonna do about it tomorrow?’ I felt almost overwhelmingly depressed. And I’ve spent a lot of today wondering about how much I should be thinking about oil not just in Angola but the whole Gulf of Guinea, and whether focusing on recent history and government and death is really missing the point. Or should we all always do all of this, as writers, researchers and thinkers and journalists? Would I be most useful if I was investigating the oil industry? Or is investigating people and their lives just as important?

Reading: Untapped, the Scramble for Africa’s oil by John Ghazvinian.