Friday, 22 November 2013


I have been spending the past fortnight in Mauritius, it is my first visit in almost two years.  It may sound strange to some, but that's rather a long time for me.  I once visited three times in eight months, although it was a necessity in order to finalise my citizenship which I acquired five and a half years ago.  To say I hold a great deal of affection for this place is as big an understatement as suggesting I have a slight passing interest for a certain football club from North London.

When I speak of my love for the island commonly referred to as the land of shooting stars and rainbows, people often think I am dazzled by the white sand and turquoise sea or the mountainous peaks which form such a striking backdrop of the central portion of the landscape.

However I believe that these are mere footnotes in terms of the real beauty of somewhere which truly does take your breath away.  Most will realise I am a proud lefty and I find it fascinating how the political debate in Mauritius takes place on the left.  I site the example of how the then opposition Labour Party had to offer free travel to schoolchildren in the 2005 general election in order to outmanoeuvre the governing Movement Militant Mauricien (MMM) Party who had already implemented extended travel concessions for the elderly.  A political debate based on who can give more to the people: beauty really does goes beyond the palm trees here.

Even the most "right-wing" faction, the  Mauritian Socialist Movement (MSM), a centre-left party, would be to the left of the ground taken by the UK Labour Party.  There is no squabbling over nasty right wing values here.  It's why I often remark that while I would align myself personally with the MMM, I can never spout the kind of vitriol I do in the UK where I despise voters of parties like the Tories, UKIP or the BNP etc.  I  believe the MMM offers the best alternative for left-wing sympathisers like myself, but the truth is that neither of the parties in Mauritius fill me with horror in terms of their views of how to run the country.  If the MSM were standing in the UK they would get my vote over the UK Labour Party every single time.

I also find it fascinating how every single religion is afforded equal recognition.  It is true that following the arrival of Indians after the abolition of slavery the number of Indians quickly assumed a position as the majority.  But to suggest that only the Hindu culture is celebrated would be a gross misrepresentation.  Every single religious festival is recognised with a public holiday.  The running joke here is that it is unusual to have more than three weeks without one.

Most who know me will appreciate that I don't really regard myself as religious.  I was brought up as a Catholic and attended eleven years within the framework of a Catholic schooling education, although it's been many years since I attended a church except for a funeral, christening or wedding.  That being said, I probably lean more towards Catholicism than any other religion.  That is to say if I was pushed to make a choice.

Some visitors to Mauritius could find the overt presence of religious symbols to be quite unsettling, but even I can recognise a unique beauty in the expressive nature of it all.  I probably wouldn't feel the same if one religion had been afforded a certain status above all others, but that is simply not the case here.

The early mornings are alive with the sounds of mosques calling to prayers, the Hindus have their various processions.  Christians celebrate the various sacraments with equal vigour and even the Chinese do not escape as the Spring festival (Chinese New Year) turns the island into a cacophony of lights and sounds as the symbolic dragon chases away the evil spirits.  And nobody is alienated from the celebrations, there is an eagerness to celebrate one another's culture in a way that I have never experienced elsewhere in the world.

Even for a religious cynic like me, I am profoundly blown away by it all.

It hasn't always been this way though.  The history of this beautiful land is littered with various race riots which dominated the first three decades following independence.  The last in 1999 followed the controversial death in police custody of the Seggae artist Kaya.  During the uprising that followed another singer Berger Agathe, was shot dead by police.

So much changed after 1999 and as this republic entered the 21st century there was a renewed acceptance that a threshold had been crossed and that there will never again be a return to our kaleidoscope of cultures clashing once again.  And in the main things have moved on.  The descendants of African slaves, Creoles (like those of my paternal heritage), for so long victims of oppression by a sizeable and powerful Hindu majority, were finally elevated to positions of authority in the national structure which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.  In 2003 the first non-Hindu Prime Minister, Paul Berenger, took office and again a barrier had been broken.

Yet in 2013 elements of an archaic school of thought remain.  During this visit I found myself consoling a friend, a Muslim, who was coming to terms with the end of her engagement with her Hindu finance.  It wasn't because he could not accept her, he was of a generation who genuinely couldn't care less.  But his parents rejected her on the basis of her faith.  Her acceptance of it all as if it was somehow expected was something I found deeply troubling, not to mention so disheartening.

It is perhaps something I have chosen to ignore.  I have become so used to the group of friends I have built up over the past nine years that it seemed normal to see a Chinese Mauritian in a relationship with a Creole, or a Hindu with a Muslim.  To realise that it is not as universal as I thought has been something of a wake-up call.

I refuse to accept that Mauritius is as divided as the sectarian disputes which marred the first three decades following independence demonstrated.  But there is still work to be done to finally stamp out the attitudes of the generations which contributed so much to the problems of this period.  I will still argue that Mauritius is the Rainbow Island, a term which pays homage to its unique cultural make up.  That being said we cannot afford to think that our work is done- we still need to do more to ensure that nobody should be forced to choose between the love of another person or the love of their family, purely because of a difference of religious or cultural origins.

It is still my dream that observers will one day visit Mauritius from around the world to learn how an island the size of Surrey can accommodate 1.3 million inhabitants within a harmony that the rest of the world seems light years from replicating.  And make no mistake about it: Mauritius is closer to achieving that goal than anywhere else in the world.  But as this visit has served to reinforce, we are not there yet.

Until everyone can love whoever they wish based on personal choice as opposed to rigid cultural prejudices, the fabled pot of gold at the end of the rainbow will remain a fantasy from a ladybird fairytale.

Friday, 4 October 2013

An Unpalatable Choice

Black History Month in the UK is barely three days old but already some have been left reeling at the news which will see the country’s first black radio station reach the end of the line.  Choice FM will disappear as we know it from Monday after 23 and a half years on the air.

My earliest memory of Choice FM can be traced back to February 1990 when my younger sister and I were staying overnight at our big sister’s.  She had the radio tuned into what was a test broadcast on the designated frequency for the fledgling broadcaster which was to launch the following month.  There’s a beautiful symmetry to this because it was the same big sister who I hold responsible for introducing me to the station now known as Capital FM around three years earlier.

Capital began acquiring shares in Choice in early 2003 leading to wholesale changes at the station.  The most striking of which saw the departure of Geoff Schumann who along with Martin Jay formed a formidable double-act which shattered audience records at the station.  The station’s relocation from Southwark to Leicester Square was another erosion of the unique footprint and was a symbolic gesture of a corporate juggernaut taking an alternative direction.  Other modifications included the removal of prominent reggae DJ’s from the broadcaster’s schedules between the hours of 7am and 7pm.

The end of the station was savagely as swift as the bloodbath nine years ago.  On Wednesday the Voice newspaper reported on speculation that the station was to be rebranded as Capital Xtra.  A little over 24 hours later came the confirmation of the news sparking outrage from listeners who had remained loyal to the station despite all of the betrayal and recriminations from the original transfer of ownership in 2004.

Listening to Choice over the last decade has always posed something of a moral dilemma.  The station retained a handful of DJ’s who survived the cull of the organisational restructure.  Martin Jay’s Caribbean Affair on Sunday nights was still the most listened to soca radio show on British radio.  Nonetheless it always resembled the scenario of stumbling across a copy of a rag like the Daily Mail and trying to sneak a peep at the sports section- despite knowing full well that the paper’s overall editorial line aggressively undermined everything you believed in.

That is why the discovery of internet-based stations like Large Radio has been something that I have embraced so emphatically.  It is why when my weekly favourite the Calaloo Show recently ran into difficulties, I found myself listening to its archived content via podcasts instead of catching up with the Sunday evening soca show on a station I no longer harboured any affection for.  I believe it is online that the future of radio broadcasting for minority music lies. 

Of course the nostalgic side of me does reflect on the dreams and aspirations of the founders Patrick Berry and Neil Kenlock.  Indeed Berry’s comments about “protecting the uniqueness of our programmes” ahead of the sale in November 2003 suggested that his intentions were honourable.  The demise following the sale of the broadcaster to Capital in 2004 should not diminish what the two helped to create in 1990: the UK’s first legal black radio station.  Nothing can overshadow the first thirteen years which provided a remarkable chapter for radio entertainment in this country.

I mourned Choice FM’s passing many years ago.  For almost a decade the brand was appropriated by parties who had poisoned its powerful legacy and provided us with a creation which was a world away from the community based station.  I am delighted that the Choice FM brand is being consigned to the history books.  It was obnoxiously insulting that the name used bore so little resemblance to the groundbreaking station established all those years ago.

I concede that the reaction to this week’s news has surprised me, I hadn’t realised such a sizeable proportion had stayed loyal after all this time.  Nobody I knew who listened back then tuned in anymore.  We always viewed those who did as refusing to accept that it had died and were clinging on to a corpse in a desperate attempt to turn back the clock.  An audience which was at best misguided and refused to listen to warnings of the time that eventually this week’s developments would come to pass.

It was an insatiable lust for something that had ceased to exist, worshipping a shell of its once glorious incarnation.  Necrophilia?  The dictionary suggests that the definition is not so out of context here, though probably it is an exaggeration to suggest that those who continued tuning in could be characterised as such.

However it is undeniable that a decade ago the audience had a decision to make.  It is most surprising that so many made such an unpalatable choice.

Sunday, 29 September 2013


My dad had a habit of confusing my sister and I as kids when it came to vocabulary.  Despite only arriving in the country as a fourteen year old he had a reasonable enough command of the English language and regularly applied some of its most colourful aspects.  He could turn the air bright blue in the blink of an eye.

My sister and I were no fools; we knew we’d never get away with swearing at our dad.  We would swear at each other, but only when he wasn’t around.  But there were other less obvious examples that my dad would vigorously take exception to.  Like “destroy” or other phrases that we had picked up from cartoons like He-Man or Thundercats.  Terms like “evil” for example.

As is common for most siblings a couple of years apart, we used to fight like cats and dogs.  I never forget one occasion remonstrating with my dad and telling him that my sister was “evil”.  He flew into a rage, declaring that such a phrase was inappropriate and far too strong a term to be used so liberally.  It was made clear to me in no uncertain terms that such a word should never ever be used to describe my younger sibling.

For a phrase with such a powerful emotive impact its frequency of usage is quite astonishing.  When we hear of high profile court cases, the defendant is often depicted as evil.  It has even been used in sport reports.  When Ben Johnson was unceremoniously stripped of his gold medal in 1988 at the Seoul Olympic games, the BBC reporter Ron Pickering used the term to describe the act of cheating.  Ben Johnson has rightly been subjected to a number of condemnations for his actions over the past quarter of a century. Stupid, naïve, selfish, irresponsible and careless probably all of which could be applied, but evil is bordering on the ridiculous.

This year the phrase has been regularly utilised to describe two acts of grotesque violence: on the streets of Woolwich and a shopping mall in Nairobi.  Two incidents which were inexplicable to any balanced individual- we are unable to explain why anyone would be able to commit such acts of brutality.  What we cannot interpret or rationalise means that we have to resort to a default position as a realisation that something is “unknown” leaves us exposed and almost vulnerable.  Therefore we must have a bucket to effectively “scoop-up” and collect all these episodes which are otherwise impossible to fathom, an expression which we refer to as “evil”.

An abnormality of the mind like schizophrenia was identified barely a hundred years ago.  Prior to that medical breakthrough a schizophrenic was labelled as “evil” or “possessed” or even a “witch”. As an evolving society we continue to identify new medical conditions, it is very possible that in 2-300 years time a whole new selection of mental illnesses will be identified and treatable. 

It is not out of the question that many of those conditions will account for behaviour which today we are unable to diagnose so revert to a default position of classifying the unexplained as acts of evil. My ex’s brother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic but in another lifetime he could have been drowned in a lake or worse.

I’ve highlighted previously about my own personal experiences of living through three murders at separate stages of my adult life and consequently debated endlessly the existence of evil.  I now think that for anyone to have the capacity to take another life only demonstrates that there is an imbalance within that individual.  It is an abnormality of the mind and as such they are ill.

We as a society may not have evolved enough yet to determine a medical condition with an elaborate name to quantify such a phenomenon, but I genuinely believe that someday it will be treatable.  And just like now, everybody will look back in history and wonder how so many could have got it so wrong.

I’m no doctor or psychiatrist.  It is just a theory based on personal experiences, but I can’t subscribe to this collective notion of a convenient category which classifies what we are unable to understand. 

Monday, 29 July 2013

Nottingham Carnival & The Carnival Tax

The longest British heatwave in seven years may be a distant memory as the unsettled spell of weather continues, but nonetheless we are of course in the middle of the summer season.  It is a period of the year which is illuminated by the festivals and carnivals which add so much character to the calendar.

I have written previously about my love of carnivals and the symbolic importance that it represents for so many including myself.  During the same piece I held up Nottingham as a shining example of defending the spirit of what carnival stands for by the decision taken in 2011 to become the first carnival to go ahead after a summer of civil unrest.  The carnival followed just days after a police station in the city was firebombed and I commended the decision as being both correct but also brave since other carnivals around the time were being cancelled.

Yet for the last five days I have been involved in a campaign of awareness regarding some quite extraordinary plans by organisers of the same carnival to introduce something truly revolutionary without any degree of public consultation whatsoever.  A concept which if successful will have ramifications for carnivals all over the UK and may one day lead to extortionate tariffs being imposed on events like the Notting Hill Carnival where such gatherings will become the preserve of an elite.

I am talking about plans for an admission fee being applied to the entry of the Nottingham Caribbean Carnival.  It is an idea I have dubbed as the “Carnival Tax”.

First let us assess the plans as they were unveiled on the 25th July when the promotional posters were released to social networks on the same day.  The organisers have requested that attendees make a voluntary suggested contribution of £1 per day upon entry to the event.  This conjures up images of visits to museums where containers are placed within the grounds for patrons to submit contributions of their choice.  These are normally accompanied by a written instruction such as “suggested contribution £1” or other various amounts.  And the containers are usually transparent and are filled with various denominations including many banknotes far in excess of the suggested amount.  It is an indirect message that patrons should “give what they can” so that those who can afford more will contribute more and those who cannot will contribute what they can spare.

It’s a tranquil gentle image and we know it works because we have all seen those containers filled with all sorts of coins and banknotes.  However critically it is managed in a way so as to ensure that nobody feels that they are under duress to make a contribution.  There is no security guard within a few feet accompanied by police officers providing any kind of impression that they are in any way connected to the process of donations.  And most importantly of all the procedure is managed within the grounds of the museum and is not at the entry point nor could it be interpreted as being a condition of entry.

When most people heard about Nottingham Carnival’s plans for a suggested contribution of £1, the initial image many would have dreamt up would have been something broadly along the lines of the scene from the museum.  This would be the idea of patrons roaming freely into the grounds of the event and making a suitable contribution free from any pressure.  It all projects the same gentle operation which would suggest that any opposition would be completely irrational and unjustified.

Unfortunately this is simply not the case in terms of the plans that the organisers of Nottingham Carnival have lined up for next month.  I have had to press them on a number matters over the last few days, including a lengthy exchange of emails with the CEO Richard Renwick MBE but can now confirm that the romantic timid image of the example of museum contributions is a world away from what is being plotted.

Visitors to Nottingham Carnival will know that the event is staged on the Forest Fields in a section of the park which is cordoned off using tall metal temporary railings which serve as a fence.  Some observers have likened the image to “animals in a cage” and whilst I do share the sentiments, I do equally believe that it is a debate to have on a different day and most certainly as part of a different post. 

Entry to the event is solely through one point at the front of the cordoned off area.  It is a designated security point, manned by several security staff of a burly appearance, usually with a police officer or two nearby.  This is the only entry point to the grounds of the Nottingham Caribbean Carnival.

It can be quite an intimidating scene even for people like myself who always attend carnival with the essence of the spirit for which the festivities were designed for.  I have my flag, horns, whistle and vuvuzela ready for action, but even as I am ready to enjoy one of my favourite occasions in the calendar, it is an uncomfortable part of the carnival experience as security staff look you up and down, waiting for any excuse to scrutinise you further at the entry point where you are searched using various metal detectors.

It is this uncomfortable part of the carnival experience where the organisers of the Nottingham Carnival are seeking to enforce their voluntary suggested contribution.  I have requested that they relocate the collection zone to an area within the grounds of the carnival, so that it cannot in any way be misinterpreted as a condition of entry.  This request has been repeatedly declined on the grounds that they have attempted to make collections within the grounds before without any success.  I have countered that the previous collection campaigns lacked enough focus to inform the public who may not have realised just how much trouble the organisers of the event are in trying to put on the show every year.  This could easily be resolved with posters and leaflets emphasising the point, but again from within the grounds of the event itself.

Even the literature which has been produced for the event does not tally up with the message they are now scrambling to ensure is heard.  The poster does not make any reference at all to the contribution being voluntary or that it is suggested, simply that it is £1 on the day.  Oh and that kids go free.

There is little doubt in my mind that nobody from the organisation would be stupid enough to stop anyone attending the event if they failed to make a suitable donation at the point of entry.  Unfortunately there is a broader problem here which will potentially arise.  The process is managed in full view of intimidating security staff and police officers, not to mention a queue of people who are anxious to get beyond the other side of the perimeter fencing.  While the designated individuals managing the collections may not be naïve enough to prevent someone entering who did not want to make the contribution, they can still make the non-contributor’s life uncomfortable.

For example if someone did not wish (or indeed did not have) the necessary funds to cover the voluntary suggested contribution there is nothing to stop the organisers requesting the contribution from amplifying their voices to a higher decibel.   This would enable others in the queue behind to be left in no doubt that this person at the front of the queue was not paying the £1.  It could then lead to anxious queue members becoming frustrated, possibly calling out insults which are then echoed by others also keen to pass the entry point and enjoy the rest of the day.  Therefore it will have a knock-on effect as others in the queue who may also have lacked the funds to cover their contribution that day, will prefer not to be subjected to such ridicule or abuse and decide to leave the queue early to head home instead.

It is as someone described to me last week as a visual deterrent.  An almost covert strategy to prevent others who do not have the necessary voluntary suggested contribution from joining the queue in the first place.  Is it worth paying £1 to avoid the humiliation or abuse incurred by other members of the queue?  Is it not better to stay at home in order to ensure that exposure to such a situation is avoided?

What about if someone retaliates at the abuse they are subjected to?  What if a fight broke out at the entry point, in full view of police officers nearby?  Essentially the catalyst for such a flashpoint would be an apparent revolutionary idea which was implemented without any consideration for the implications it could lead to.  This in turn would damage the event as a whole because statistically the arrests would be connected to the event and would be used as ammunition by parties who are opposed to the annual festivities.

There is little doubt that Nottingham Carnival is in trouble and the amount of funding it has lost in recent years has been breathtaking.  There are severe funding issues at the core of this issue which serves as a motivation for the organisers to head down this road. However there are questions that they must in turn answer because recent actions do not reflect the responsible conduct of an organisation working under restrictions in funding.  We have all experienced the perils of the current economic depression which has engulfed this country for the past five years, so we all have experience of sacrificing luxuries in order to ensure necessities are managed.  It’s the old cliché of “working within your means”.

So why have the organisers of Nottingham Carnival responded to a reduction in funding by continuing to indulge in lavish “international acts”?  Artists which could be deemed to be extravagant, expensive and unnecessary.  Nobody could deny that the announcement that Ms Dynamite would be headlining one of the days at the event was met by near-universal approval.  But if there was any suggestion that Ms Dynamite attending would lead to such an unsavoury scenario many would have condemned such an idea unequivocally. 

It is a set of circumstances where Nottingham will make history as being the first UK carnival to charge patrons to attend, something which fills me with shame and embarrassment.  It is a fact which I highlighted to Mr. Renwick when I suggested that should his idea go ahead he might wish to contact the city council about their “Proud” campaign as such a pledge could no longer be accurate given the humiliation a lot of us will feel as residents of a city that has allowed such a travesty to go ahead.

Carnivals offer a unique experience.  Performing artists are seen more as a bonus to compliment proceedings instead of being the centrepiece of the annual celebration.  When I attended Preston and Huddersfield Carnivals earlier this summer, I was not enticed by seeing Beenie Man in Lancashire or Shy FX in West Yorkshire.  It would have been a nice surprise but it was not my motivation to attend.  I was attracted by the idea of the carnival atmosphere, in two cities that I had never visited before and provided me with enough happy memories to ensure that I will be returning to both next year too. Both were very simple events with less emphasis on huge headliners but both were delivered without the need to impose a tax levy on visitors.

When people attend festivals there is an expectation to see a superstar.  When I attended the recent Lovebox event in London I was excited by the prospect of seeing the 90s R&B legend D’Angelo.  If I had attended and found the stage was instead filled by Debbie from Dalston, I would have demanded my money back.  Thus my expectation is that the festivals will be full of established stars not “hidden gems”.

Amy Winehouse was one of the biggest artists that this country has ever produced but the story of her on the MasterMind stage in a Sainsbury’s car park in Notting Hill is one that is remembered fondly by all lucky enough to have been in attendance that day.  She was not paid a penny for her performance as at the time she was an unsigned act and was still very much a “rough diamond”.  Where are the opportunities to find the new Amy’s of Nottingham if the stages are filled with Ms Dynamite or Shy FX?  What about Stacey from Sneinton or Rachel from Radford?  This is where the true meaning of carnival has been lost amidst a ruthless strategy to turn Nottingham Carnival into some kind of festival which now charges attendees an admission fee.

I have lobbied the organisers and the CEO about having the name changed; if this farce must take place then at least they could change the name to festival.  Such an alteration may seem trivial or even cheap points scoring, but it is a highly significant amendment.  Festivals normally charge people to attend their events, in return for seeing popular headliner acts.  Carnivals do not, but equally they do not necessarily have “international acts” either.

The £1 Carnival Tax at Nottingham Carnival will not be sufficient to safeguard it's future. The 2013 event will purely be an experiment to see how many people will pay up.  Assuming enough do so, the price will almost certainly rise next year.  And the year after that.  In fact it will keep rising until the number of visitors tails off.  Ultimately it will lead to other carnivals around the UK also following suit.  Each using the current austerity measures as a smokescreen to more sinister motives.  Which will only eventually lead to the biggest of them all: Notting Hill Carnival.  Should that happen, the admission charge will be a lot more than £1.

At the time of writing the organisers behind the Nottingham Caribbean Carnival have been unwilling to offer any compromise on three crucial areas.  Firstly they have refused to cancel the £1 voluntary suggested contribution.  They have also refused to relocate the designated collection zone away from the entry point.  And finally they have refused to rename the event to a festival. 

I have asked that they give way on just one of the three areas, but this has been declined repeatedly.

Consequently I have started an awareness campaign under a slogan of boycotting the Nottingham Carnival.  This is something which has been deeply traumatic because of my own passion for carnivals as a whole and even more so because it is the carnival in the city that has been my home for eleven years.  It is a bizarre position I find myself in but one that I have sought to defend because as I have stated a lot over the past few days: this is far bigger than Nottingham.

This potentially affects carnivals all over the UK and if I do nothing then I am being complicit in a crime which will fundamentally change the events as we know them.  It will inevitably become a watershed moment in years to come and one day someone will tell me that they are unable to attend the Notting Hill Carnival because they cannot afford the £75 admission ticket.  As a result I will be forced to explain how I saw how it started and sat back and did nothing.  I can’t do that.  And if you care for the future of carnivals then neither can you.

Say no to the Carnival Tax.  On the 17th & 18th August boycott Nottingham Carnival.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Zoo's Fooling Who?

The Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) stands on a platform of fighting for the right of return for Chagossians who were expelled from their islands.  It represents the largest number of Chagossians, a majority who reject the creation of the Marine Protection Area (MPA) in its existing form.

I explained to a supporter the other week that my own personal position is that I am against the MPA in all of its forms, at least prior to any resettlement of the Chagossians.  I believe that any future discussions around marine preservation should be led by Chagossians, to determine their own destiny.  If they want a marine zone, let them decide for themselves- from the Chagos Islands once they have resettled there.  I believe it is cataclysmically wrong to impose this upon the Chagossians who in all honesty have suffered enough.

It is for this reason that I personally argued so passionately at the beginning of 2010 against the zone being created.  I predicted that the area was being used as a mechanism to pre-empt the judicial action in Strasbourg.  Six months later I was vindicated when the release of the wikileaks cables confirmed that the creation of the zone was being used to place ecologists in direct conflict with Chagossians and their supporters.

Earlier this year I brought to public attention the activities of a minority movement within the Chagossian community who were being misrepresented as the voice of the majority.  As I stated at the time, it would be wrong to deny the Diego Garcian Society (DGS) a role to play in determining the future of the Chagos Islands, but that their contribution should be assessed on the basis that they represent the smallest number of Chagossians.

Similarly a campaign currently being promoted by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to attempt to engage Chagossians in their vision of the future of the Chagos Islands, should not be silenced.  However it is critical again that there must not be a distortion of the current state of play.

The ZSL have made much of Chagossians participating in their series of events including a “family fun day” and it is noted that their campaign does emphasise this point quite explicitly.  The inference being that the Chagossians are endorsing the ZSL’s agenda.  For the avoidance of any doubt, the ZSL support the no-take fishing proposals and the MPA in its existing form which by definition means they are against a permanent resettlement of the Chagossian community on the islands.

There is no dispute that Chagossians have participated in several ZSL events or that some are seen to be supportive of their agenda.  It is just that to date the proportion of Chagossians who have engaged with the ZSL only represent a very small minority, something which is not underlined at all when the organisation highlights the presence of islanders at their functions.  Unfortunately this has created further confusion, coupled with a suggestion that the stance of organisations like the CRG has been damaged or undermined. 

This is not true.  The support for the position adopted by Olivier Bancoult is as strong as ever.  There have always been minority factions who have followed alternative paths, as outlined when I explained the existence of the DGS.  And it is right that different views and arguments should be recognised.  What is not right is for the situation to be manipulated or for inaccuracies to be allowed to fester unchallenged. 

The British Foreign Office has commenced a period of consultation as part of its commitment to “take stock” following last December’s highly contentious European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling in Strasbourg.  Supporters and Chagossians are invited to make their submissions before the 31st July 2013 to the BIOT Policy Review team who can be contacted here.

In 2010 we lost the argument not because a majority of Chagossians were in favour of marine preservation.  It was due to the ecological movement, thanks to a decisive financial advantage,  being able to convey their message more effectively.  Over 250,000 people supported the proposal to create an MPA around the Chagos Islands during the initial consultation.  This month it is up to supporters to ensure that the will of the majority of Chagossians is upheld instead of a minority who can utilise powerful allies.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Déjà Vu

Peter Hill-Wood stepped down earlier this month as the chairman of Arsenal FC.  He was the final link to the era known as the “coming to power” of the club, the period during the 1930s when under Herbert Chapman the club lifted their first trophies.  It was a golden spell which included the only period when we would win the league title three years running.

When Samuel Hill-Wood arrived at the club in 1929, Arsenal had yet to win a trophy, although Chapman had already been installed as manager.  It is rather fitting then that the Hill-Wood family association with Arsenal should come to an end at a time when the club is on the brink of becoming one of the richest and most powerful in the world.  This summer it has been widely reported that the club has a £70 million transfer budget which is the largest there has ever been for our side.

All of the signs suggest that Gonzalo Higuain, a 25 year old striker currently plying his trade for Real Madrid in Spain, is on his way to Arsenal.  The deal is believed to cost in the region of £50 million once his wages and bonuses are taken into account.  The fee of around £22m will become the most the club has ever spent on an individual.

Naturally the news has excited the overwhelming majority of Arsenal fans.  It is viewed as a statement of intent, following years of watching the club sell our best players.  A major milestone that demonstrates we are finally in a position to challenge once again for honours and to rival the larger clubs for players.  The Emirates stadium is almost paid off and a new TV deal commences which has given the club more spending power than ever before.  Everything suggests a new era is beginning.  A fact beautifully epitomised with a changing of the guard in the boardroom and the end of the Hill-Wood’s stewardship of our club.

But this doesn’t feel like a new dawn.  Instead it feels a lot like déjà vu.

Five years ago some Arsenal fans were in mutinous mood.  In hindsight it is probably the origin of the first genuine voices of discontent against Arsene Wenger.  It was to become a movement which would eventually result in Arsenal games feeling like a series of civil wars as fans turned on one other, divided over the future direction of the club.  We had just missed out on the 2008 Premier League title and the theory followed that the only solution was to make significant financial outlays in order to save the club from spiralling into mid-table oblivion.

Unfortunately the club did not start the 2008/9 season in anywhere near like the fashion that was needed to marginalise the doubters.  On Boxing Day evening a 2-2 draw at Aston Villa suddenly felt terminal and the muffled murmurs of criticism at the start of the season had snowballed into revolt as fans demanded that the club invest heavily during the impending January transfer window to avoid Arsenal slipping out of the top 4 for the first time since 1996.

The response from Wenger and the board was emphatic as the transfer record was broken in order to secure the services of a Russian player called Andrei Arshavin.  A player coveted by Barcelona no less. 

Sadly aside from a magical night at Anfield, Arshavin’s Arsenal career will not go down in history with the greats.  An expensive signing which did not deliver should have silenced the fans who clamoured for his signature.  Yet instead this was conveniently overlooked and the voices demanding further expensive acquisitions became louder and louder.  To his credit Wenger faced down his critics each time, often from even more precarious positions than Boxing Day 2008.

I have never subscribed to the viewpoint that Wenger should go, I regard him as being the most important and visionary Arsenal manager since Chapman.  But I recognise that for the first time fans who agree with me are now in a minority.  It made sitting on the North Bank last season at times a torturous experience as I witnessed around me the venom of bitterness that had accumulated against our manager.  There was even one point when I thought he would actually walk away. 

There is little doubt the playing squad is in need of some reinforcements, but I cannot help thinking that the pursuit of Higuain is Arshavin all over again: a big name signing designed to appease disharmony amongst our supporters.  I am firmly of the view that last season it was not Robin Van Persie that we missed but instead the services of Alex Song who performed a rather unsung pivotal role protecting our defence. 

Last season Arsenal didn't have a problem scoring, a fact backed up by the fact that we actually scored more goals than the season Van Persie enjoyed his best year for us.  We did however endure catastrophic disasters in defence, best illustrated in conceding four at Reading and three at home to Newcastle.

It is impossible to justify consuming over 70% of our budget on a player we do not need.  In an ideal world we would have a budget of £200 million and it would be a nice luxury to acquire another striker.  But in terms of where we are now this simply does not represent anything like a priority for us.  We need another defender, a defensive midfielder and possibly another goalkeeper too.

However those signings won’t generate the loud headlines and thus will not appease the voices who demand Wenger’s head on a platter.  So I can see why Wenger is taking this path.  Finishing above Spurs merely served as a temporary ceasefire.  Anything less than a big name signing would have spelt trouble, resulting in the club starting a new season with the fans already against them.

I sincerely hope that when fans wonder why we are still suffering defensively next term, that the boos that ring out at the Emirates are not directed at Wenger.  Or at the team or even the club board. 

I truly hope that the boos are for the fans who collectively played their part in hijacking our clubs rebuilding objectives in return for a few tabloid headlines.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Trauma Vs Tradition

My second year as an Arsenal Season Ticket Holder draws to a close over the next few weeks, and tomorrow I will take my seat for Arsenal v Manchester United.  It is a fixture which is so rich in history and drama from unbelievable joys to paralysing heartache.  A couple of years ago I was celebrating my birthday early as Aaron Ramsey slotted home to give us victory with the only goal of the game.

Two decades earlier and a couple of days before my eleventh birthday Alan Smith scored a hat trick hours after we had clinched the league thanks to Nottingham Forest defeating Liverpool earlier that day.  Manchester United were simply blown away as the newly crowned European Cup Winners Cup victors fell to a 3-1 defeat at Highbury.  The night was also notable for Manchester United performing a “guard of honour” as our players stepped out onto the pitch. 

Their manager that night was a certain Sir Alex Ferguson, who was merely five years into a reign that continues to this very day.  I will not be a hypocrite and pretend to be Fergie’s biggest fan, but let it never be said that he does not get occasions like this right.  It was an act which was repeated when Chelsea were to visit Old Trafford as newly crowned Champions fourteen years later.

It is a custom which I fully agree with.  The Premier League is one of the most fiercely contested competitions in the world and during the season tempers will fray and emotions inevitably spill over.  But when the curtain falls and the honours are awarded, it is a time to reflect and to show a little dignity in defeat. 

For Arsenal fans it is also time to enjoy the now annual feast of St Totteringham Day which as any respectable Gooner will tell you is the day which is marked by fans of Arsenal as the moment when Tottenham can no longer catch Arsenal due to the number of games and remaining points available.  The last time the national holiday was postponed was 1995.

It’s a tradition, and as such they should be honoured and respected.  Much like the act of the “guard of honour” performed for visiting champions once a title is secured.  For all my personal irritation of the club, something further exasperated by their manager, I would have no personal issue following and respecting that act.  As a club we pride ourselves on doing things the right way something which has given rise to the phrase the “Arsenal Way.”

However something can stop me from doing that.  The potential selection of a certain player, an individual who once graced our club and who we in turn supported through some turbulent times as he struggled with repeated injuries.  A former employee who enjoyed the best period of his career in the 18 months directly leading to his departure when for the first time in his career he managed to stay injury free for longer than a few months.  Who having discovered the absolute peak of his ability after all of our years of support and faith (not to mention those pesky BUPA medical bills!) decided to leave us rather than to reward our belief in him with a commitment to stay.

Having supported Arsenal for just under three decades, I am not naïve enough to not realise that players do move on.  It’s a natural cycle of transition.  Once upon a time I didn’t know how Arsenal would go on without Ian Wright.  The same could be said for Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas or Robert Pires.

Players can return and be appreciated, as has been shown when Thierry returned with his Red Bulls, or Patrick with Juventus.  The norm is not to subject them to ninety minutes of the kind of venom which Ashley Cole, Emmanuel Adebayor or Samir Nasri can relate to.  In each of those examples the players concerned have secured notoriety for their conduct in the period leading up to their departure.

Personally, I don’t even see why the issue is even being discussed.  Manchester United are the champions of England and have no logical reason to bring Robin Van Persie to London tomorrow. 

Some may argue that Arsenal or their fans have no right to make any demands regarding the team selection of another side, and to a certain extent there is a valid point to be made.  But when the nature of the anger amongst Arsenal fans is so tangible and so obvious to be revealed in an ugly display of contempt for the arriving champions, it cannot simply be ignored.

On Monday Fergie will assert his position in the media and condemn Arsenal as a club without class, without humility and without dignity due to the reception which will be afforded to Robin Van Persie should he be included in the squad.  However I will counter that Fergie has deliberately orchestrated a stand off and placed dignified Arsenal fans like myself in an impossible position.  I do not want to be known as one of the 56,000+ Arsenal fans who will welcome the newly crowned winners of the Premier League with boos and jeers.  But equally I will not ignore the elephant in the room that will be the case should Robin Van Persie be anywhere near North London tomorrow.

The choice is clear: Manchester United can have their guard of honour with respect or they can have Robin Van Persie in their squad.  They cannot have both.  The line in the sand has been drawn and should Fergie wish to use this match as some kind of machismo demonstration of authority, then he will only have himself to blame when the guard of honour descends into a tunnel of shame.

We can behave ourselves tomorrow and we can observe the traditions of English football and extend further the aura of the “Arsenal Way.”  Tomorrow can be about everything that is wonderful about English football, or it can be a classic example of why Sir Alex Ferguson will never be respected or adored in the same style as Shankly or Clough. 

Tomorrow is more than just a fixture between two old rivals.  It can go a long way towards formulating the lasting legacy of a manager who is in the twilight of his career.  Or it can remind everyone why he is the first to demand respect, despite showing so little himself to anyone else throughout his career.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Dirty Tricks? Nobody Does It Better!

This post formed part of a larger article which was published on March 14 and can be found here

The Falklanders are heading to the polls for a referendum to decide on the future of their islands.  The outcome is not in doubt at all.  A huge majority will vote in favour of retaining the existing arrangement and remaining under British rule. 

Chagossian supporters have been quick to point out that another group of British subjects, the Chagossian community, have been denied this right repeatedly.  Many argue that the only difference between the two sets of populations is the colour of the skin of those involved.  The Falklanders are white while the Chagossians are black. 

But the British government will point out that the Chagossians have already been consulted and that an election administered by the Electoral Reform Services has already been conducted. Technically they are right, but as is often the case with the Foreign Office, there is more to this than meets the eye.  When it comes to dirty tricks, nobody does it better.

Last December the legal battles reached a pivotal stage when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg finally ruled on the islanders’ case.  The court decided that the action was inadmissible due to compensation being granted to some Chagossians in 1982.  The Foreign Office’s official response to the ruling was that it would “take stock” of the ruling and meet with Chagossians in due course.  This was welcomed by the community, a sign that perhaps the government may be ready to engage with the islanders. 

Sadly as has been common since the 1960s, nothing which originates from the Foreign Office regarding this issue can ever be regarded as sincere.

The overwhelming majority of Chagossians fight on a platform for a right of return and an end to British rule on the islands.  However there is one small faction, which offers a contrasting perspective.  The Diego Garcia Society (DGS) are led by Allen Vincatassin and where they differ from other Chagossian groups is that they want the islands to remain British.  This difference is best illustrated in their adoption of the official British Indian Ocean Territories (BIOT) flag as their own, as opposed to every other Chagossian group which adopts the more widely recognised Chagossian flag as the symbol of their struggle for justice.

There is nothing wrong with Vincatassin and the DGS offering an alternative view on the future of the Chagos Islands.  Their arguments should be welcomed as much as anyone else’s.  It is just that their input should be viewed in the context of which it is made: as a marginalised fringe faction which does not represent the majority of the will of the Chagossian community.  Like an extremist wing within mainstream politics.  They add to the debate, and their views should be registered, but assessed on the basis that they are the smallest of the groups.  They have a voice, but are not THE voice.

Of course the British government is never one to miss a trick.  They identified very quickly that Vincatassin represented a trophy to bolster their own agenda.  Here was a group of Chagossians who wanted to maintain the status quo.  For the Foreign Office this was a gift from the heavens.

Vincatassin was invited by the Foreign Office to conduct an election overseen by the Electoral Reform Services and was only open to members of the DGS.  There are over 2,000 Chagossians based in the UK.  Vincatassin secured just 122 votes.  That’s around 6% of UK based Chagossians, which in a British election normally usually means you breathe a sigh of relief as you have saved the deposit by posting over 5%! 

But Vincatassin got far more than his deposit back.

He was awarded the title of “provisional President of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands”.  It was more than simply a meaningless honour.  It provided him with unrivalled access to people at the very heart of the Foreign Office and the British government.  Meetings with the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband were to be a regular feature of the elevation of Vincatassin from a marginalised fringe faction leader to the leader in waiting of the Chagossian community as a whole.

When the British government wanted to make good its promise of “taking stock” and meeting with the Chagossian community, they had a willing and able partner to legitimise their charade.  Vincatassin was only too happy to meet with Mark Simmonds from the Foreign Office to discuss the implications of the Strasbourg ruling.  Simmonds and the Foreign Office knew Vincatassin would merrily dance to their music and in doing so enabled the Foreign Office to respond to critics that they are indeed meeting and interacting with Chagossians.

At the time of writing, the leader of the largest Chagossian group Olivier Bancoult has still to be invited for talks. The same applies for anyone else from his organisation, the Chagos Refugee Group.  That this should be the case merely supports the theory that the British government will only engage with Chagossians who reinforce its own hideous agenda.  Chagossians who support British government policy are rewarded with contentious titles and access to the corridors of power which will ultimately decide on the future of the islands.

Those who oppose the British government’s policy are ostracised, excluded and alienated.  That they happen to represent the overwhelming majority of Chagossian opinion is completely unacceptable.  The Foreign Office cannot pick and choose who they will work with based on this subjective test.

Vincatassin has a role to play in the future of the Chagos Islands.  But the role he must fulfil must be aligned to the position he occupies: as the leader of the smallest group of Chagossians.  To suddenly distort the marginalised voice as being representative of the wider community is manipulation of the highest order and must not be tolerated.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Gloves Are Coming Off

Sabrina Jean, Chair of the UK branch of the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG), reminded me last week that it had been a year since the 2012 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the UK Chagos Support Association (UKChSA).  A significant milestone because it marked the start of the process that saw me elected to the committee in order to become the new editor of the monthly newsletter.  It was another chapter of my involvement with the UKChSA which begun in autumn 2004- just another person transformed from the broadcast of THAT documentary.

When I took on the role, I made a promise to another supporter.  I explained how the death of Lisette Talatte had made me realise that supporters needed to act with more urgency.  It was the catalyst that made me look at my own contribution to the battle for justice and in doing so “raise my game”. 

I think the realisation that someone as recognisable as Lisette should leave us was a stark reminder that the first generation of Chagossians was elderly and dying out.  Soon like the Dodo, they would be just a footnote in history.

So here was an opportunity to walk the walk.  A chance to take on a role in the UK which some supporters have referred to as being one of the most important positions within the UKChSA.  The newsletter is the main source of information for people interested in the cause and also serves as a signpost for future forthcoming events or matters of importance. It summarises recent news developments while also shaping the agenda for the month ahead and can serve to influence supporters to navigate their efforts in a particular direction.

I came into the role with my own ideas.  While not in anyway diminishing the sterling efforts of my predecessor (Celia Whittaker), there was a growing feeling which I shared that the overall age of people within our support network was too old and required an urgent injection of younger faces.  Fresh ideas were needed to steer the association onto a more radical path.  This was maintaining the buzz word for 2012: urgency.  Almost immediately I was pulled up by Celia who rightly explained that while it was not impossible to promote my own ideas from within, it would have to be a gradual process. To deviate from the “tried and tested” way of doing things would alienate too many supporters during a delicate period of transition.

A supporter remarked to me a month ago (still at a time when the disappointment of Strasbourg was fresh in the memory) that he felt there was a change in the mood of the British government towards the Chagossian community.  Something identified before the initial responses of the Foreign Office to the Strasbourg ruling, so clearly not a result of events just before Christmas.  He went on to suggest that Chagossians should be seen as loyal subjects of the Queen who were disappointed but grateful to those in Parliament who are trying to help.

I’m not sure Sabrina would entirely concur with those sentiments and I think she has her finger on the pulse of both the Mauritian and UK based communities more than most.  Yet the broader point was ultimately true: there is indeed a change of mood. 

When the Argentinean President brought the Falkland Islands issue back into the news last month which drew a robust response from the British government, there was no need to highlight the inconsistencies between the Falklands and the Chagos Islands.  Coming so soon after Strasbourg, the double standards and hypocrisy were plain for all to see.  For the first time commentators were lining up to point out the differences.

This is significant.  It means that our voice has been heard, and for the first time we can hear the echo of our arguments being relayed by others.  There have been times when working on this cause has resembled the futile action of banging one’s head against a brick wall.  We knew there was an injustice, and that the time to rectify this was long overdue.  But our voices were being systematically ignored, and we looked on enviously as the Gurkhas successfully integrated a celebrity into their campaign which almost overnight transformed their fortunes.

I have likened the recent declaration of support from the former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott as being our “Joanna Lumley” moment.  With the greatest of respect to Ben Fogle and Philippa Gregory (joint patrons of the UKChSA) the kind of pulling power that somebody like Prescott can bring to our cause is astronomical.  On one level, his political connections are invaluable.  Here is somebody who was at the very top of government for a decade.  Yet his political clout only tells part of the story.  Here is an instantly recognisable figure, irrespective of whether you share an interest in politics.

The next UKChSA AGM will take place next month, and there are a number of areas which Sabrina and I are currently exploring which we believe will enable us to work more effectively as an organisation.  Both the flagship website and official social network accounts are woefully undermanaged, in many cases updated several days after a major development occurs.  The work of supporters on such sites is invaluable and must be built upon, but the flagship bearers must be seen to be leading the way, effectively setting the agenda.  At the time of writing this post, the newsletter was published seven days ago and yet still is not on our website. 

That this has not been the case is not so much disappointing but an embarrassment to our organisation as a whole.  It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how such tools should be utilised.  To continue in its current format is unacceptable and cannot be accepted for much longer.  As a matter of urgency this needs to be addressed.

Personally speaking 2012 was a learning experience, a time to understand where the boundaries laid and where they could be extended.  2013 is very much a case of focussing on the latter and working to move the organisation forward. 

The honeymoon is over and the gloves are coming off.