Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Getting Death off our Roads Part 2

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday May 26 2015.The article was illustrated with this picture. I am not sure if the red stuff is blood or betel spit.

picpart2rev

In a previous article in these pages, I wrote about the problem of killer buses in Sri Lanka and canvassed the opinions of Sri Lankans home and abroad.

 

Testing for Drugs and Alcohol

 

I had read that drink and drugs might be a contributory factor to the manic behaviour of some bus drivers. I had not realised that evidence for this came from the Private Bus Owners Association itself.  In May 2010, Gemenu Wijeratne, president of the association, made the frightening statement: “We did a survey of buses operating in Colombo and found that about 30 percent of drivers smoked ganja or consumed liquor before operating their vehicles.” He said some bus drivers were even addicted to heroin, blaming them for the high rate of accidents. “We have asked the police… to step up detection because these drivers have given private buses a bad reputation,” So it is the fault of the police that his drivers are killing people because they are stoned out of their minds! Five years on, what has Wijeratne done to clean up his members’ act? Should not his association introduce some form of testing and discipline its own drivers and members?

One commenter on my previous article said that before privatisation a CTB certificate was highly prized, a CTB driver was a respected member of the community and drinking on duty and drug-taking was unheard of.

A recent survey by the IOH (Institute of Oral Health) found that 80% of the bus drivers in Maharagama and Dehiwala chew betel to keep themselves awake. Another survey showed that 70.40% of bus drivers in Jaffna chew betel. It is an offence under the Tobacco and Alcohol Act of 2006 to drive under the influence of drugs. Dr Hemantha Amarasinghe, IOH Head of Research believes that drivers should be banned from chewing betel because the combination of betel, areca nut, tobacco and slaked lime produces a “high” which puts drivers and passengers at risk.

Licensing System

One reader who commented on my previous article thought the current licensing system in Sri Lanka was merely a money-making scheme for the government. Licenses seem to be issued to all and sundry. The system  should be started again from scratch. Drivers who already hold a licence should be retested free of charge.

In other countries, people wishing to work as drivers of vehicles that carry passengers have to have a special driving licence for which they have to pass a rigorous test, following intensive training.  National Transport Commission (NTC) Chairman Renuka Perera said, in September 2014, that the NTC would in, 2015, introduce a special exam for bus drivers who would get a Public Transport Licence. When, on July 8 2014,  the then transport minister Kumara Welgama introduced new rules in parliament, the UNP’s Ajith Mannapperuma objected to plans to renew licences every four years, claiming it was aimed at getting additional revenue for the government.

New guidelines should have been applied by January 1 2015.No one should drive a public service vehicle unless authorised by the Commissioner General under Section 128A of the Motor Traffic Act. Anyone driving a bus or school van needs to satisfy the Commissioner General that he has obtained two years driving experience. He also needs a medical certificate and proof that he has completed a first-aid course. He should not have a criminal record. Recent news reports suggest that the police are not enforcing these new rules.

Training of Drivers

One commenter suggested trainers could be found abroad. Providing a squad of indigenous Sri Lankan trainers will improve the nation’s employment situation. Training should be ongoing and include compulsory workshops for owners as well as drivers. Drivers could be made to attend twice a year a class on accountability and trust in order to sensitise them to their responsibilities. They should be educated to understand their moral responsibility to their passengers by being forced to watch images of road accidents involving dangerous driving of buses and studying the causes.

Zero Tolerance

Some agreed with a point I made in my first article that errant drivers should be apprehended, taken to court and banned from driving. Others found this too draconian and preferred a demerit points system leading through suspension to eventual loss of licence.

Someone recommended a zero-tolerance approach. A zero tolerance policy imposes automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct. The theory in New York was that if you dealt with minor transgressions and did not tolerate vandalism or even dropping litter, greater crimes would also reduce. Not everyone believes that worked (see recent events in Baltimore) but that is another debate. In this context, the police should  stop vehicles that appear to be unroadworthy; vehicles belching out black smoke; vehicles driven in an erratic fashion; vehicles infringing the rules, such as crossing the white line. Having stopped them, police should take effective action against them.

The theory is applicable to the context of bus accidents. Zero-tolerance policies forbid persons in positions of authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit the circumstances subjectively; they are required to impose a pre-determined punishment regardless of, extenuating circumstances, or history or influence.

Bus Lanes

More than one person suggested that, as three-wheelers, motorcycles and buses make a disproportionate contribution to accidents, they should be segregated. Other countries have separate lanes for buses and cyclists. This improves the quality of the transport service for the public and makes it easier for buses to keep to timetable. It would be difficult to impose it up here on our narrow winding mountain roads. The roads are becoming narrower still because of frequent landslips and uprooting of trees. The RDA seems to be starting a process of road widening in this area.

Public Awareness

One commenter suggested that Awareness Weeks should be established to educate the public about road safety, to teach them ways to monitor the crimes of bus drivers and how to report them. Schools should thoroughly teach children about road safety and they should be mobilised, through possibly the girl guides and boy scouts, to carry out intensive village advocacy. The aim would be to teach ordinary citizens how to whistle-blow about bad driving behaviour. The business community, via Chambers of Commerce, Lions Clubs and Rotary Associations, could play a part in awareness programmes and put pressure on bus owners to clean up their act. The High Priest at our local Buddhist temple is heavily involved in organising community projects, which include local Muslims, Hindus and Christians.  A similar ecumenical approach throughout the country  could address   the problem of road safety.

There should be a hotline that people could call into (perhaps managed by popular radio stations) about driver transgressions. A Citizens’ Watch to put pressure on bus owners and the police. There should be a map of fatal incidents so that citizens can keep the police on their toes.

There is already an excellent website sharing videos of idiocy on the roads. https://www.facebook.com/srilankantrafficviolations

Media

We need some serious deep investigative reporting to name and shame corrupt owners and demonstrate their links with politicos and police. The road safety message needs to expressed strongly in Sinhala and Tamil and not just in print. Are TV programmes dealing with this problem? Can any showbiz celebrities or cricketers be persuaded to help? During the six years I was writing a monthly column for LMD, I frequently suggested covering the topic but the idea was always rejected. I haven’t seen features on road deaths in business magazines like Echelon and LMD. There is a huge economic burden caused by road accidents. Are these magazines reaching out to the business community for solutions?

 

Next week – how they do things elsewhere.

 

Getting Death off our Roads Part 1

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday May 22 2015

 

Colman's Column3

Two Boys

Several years ago, we became integrated into our local community because of tragedy. We were invited to a funeral house and were introduced to many of our fellow villagers and many bhikkhus. The dead young man had just won a place at an Australian university and was looking forward to a successful career in IT. He was to be best man at his friend’s wedding the next day. The two boys had been born on the same day and had been friends all their short lives. Born on the same day and died on the same day. They were on a motor bike going to Passara to do some last minute shopping when they encountered an out-of-control bus. The driver was in a hurry to overtake and the boys were killed instantly. Last minutes of promising lives. The parents were mad with grief. The father suddenly became an old man as all the hope and joy drained out of him.

Rich Countries, Poor Countries

Worldwide, there is a road accident death every 30 seconds and ten people are seriously injured. The WHO (World Health Organisation) expects the number of deaths to reach two million a year by 2030, up from 1.3m now. In poor and middle-income countries road deaths will match HIV/AIDS as a cause of death by 2030. In the very poorest, the WHO expects deaths almost to triple.

The rich countries have cut road deaths through higher vehicle standards and infrastructure investment. Simple and cheap safety measures also helped. Pavements and crossings were provided on roads used by pedestrians. Cyclists and pedestrians were separated from fast traffic. Governments enforced speeding and drunk-driving laws and hammered home the message about seat belts, helmets and mobile phones.

Canvassing for Ideas

On May 5 2015, I published an article in this paper about the carnage on Sri Lankan roads. I was particularly concerned about the reckless behaviour of bus drivers and the reluctance of traffic police to address that behaviour. After publication, I canvassed the opinion of many Sri Lankans at home and abroad.

One commenter told how his neighbour was driving carefully but was killed when a bus coming from behind chose the wrong time to overtake her. He had not seen the lorry coming towards him. When did see the lorry, he quickly cut back into his lane, crushing the lady’s car in the process as she did not have time to take evasive action, stop or slow down.  She died on the spot. Even taking short journeys to do local shopping I witness many similar incidents and always feel lucky to get home alive. The sixteen-hour round trip to Colombo is a nightmare. You are not even safe if you stay indoors at home. On one Colombo trip, we saw a bus on its nose end in someone’s bedroom.

The response to my canvas was extremely impressive. In these follow-up articles, I will try to synthesise the astute comments about the cause of the problem and suggestions for possible practical solutions.

Privatisation

Private bus drivers behave more irresponsibly than drivers of other buses. It was ever thus. Before nationalisation, free market competition for the same routes caused a scramble for passengers, leading to brawls and stabbings.

The Ratnam Survey in 1948, the Sansoni Survey in 1954 and the Jayaratna Perera Survey in 1956 all concluded that nationalisation would bring a better service. Between 1958 and 1978, the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) was the nationalised enterprise providing all public bus transport in Sri Lanka. It was the largest omnibus company in the world – with about 7,000 buses and over 50,000 employees. The present number of buses in the fleet of the successor body, the SLTB, is only 4,500.

When the Premadasa government introduced privatisation, competition on the same routes returned. Currently, bus crews receive a percentage of profits so there is an incentive to overload and pick up too many passengers and run as many high-speed trips as possible.

Endemic National Character

Some of the people I canvassed cited national characteristics as part of the problem. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous – including this one”. I would be particularly wary of generalising about national character, and loth, as a guest in Sri Lanka, to pass judgement on the “Sri Lankan character”. However, my Sri Lankan friends are not so cautious. If I pointed to the success of Sweden and the Netherlands in drastically reducing road deaths, and suggest we might find some lessons, they would say one could not expect Sri Lankans to have the self-discipline of northern Europeans.

One Sri Lankan wrote: “It appears to be the dominant culture that no one is responsible or accountable for anything.”  Another concurred: “We accept chaos. If you inspect the root cause of a traffic jam in Sri Lanka, you will find that it originates in something trivial, like people lacking courtesy, blocking the whole road. There is no sense of coexistence or co-operation. It is the same in banks and post offices. No queues. Everyone wants to be served first”.

Suspension of normal rules during wartime created a pathology of circumventing sensible codes of behaviour. People see politicians bending the rules and think they can do the same. Politicians and military had special privileges, let us all have them.

Police Corruption

One commenter believed the Sri Lankan police force was corrupt and used torture as a routine procedure from its foundation in the 1860s when the force was an instrument of colonial control. It had been further “corrupted and deformed by thirty years of war”. It is now a security force and is incapable of carrying out normal police duties.

Many private buses are “owned” by police in the sense that a policeman or his relative is a silent partner of the people who operate the buses. It is a sort of protection racket; for a share of the profits, police turn a blind eye to unroadworthy vehicles and dangerous driving

One commenter was pessimistic about changing the culture because corruption ran through society right from the top. Another was more optimistic and chose to believe that not all police are corrupt and a Citizens’ Advocacy group could improve enforcement by targeting some of the more intelligent senior officers.

Impunity of Culprits

One respondent thought there were simple solutions available but the state had to be prepared to stand up to the transgressors. Private buses owners have connections with powerful politicians and their stooges. Police issued a circular that the spot-fine system for private buses would be scrapped and that all offenders would be hauled before the courts. Private Bus Owners Association President Gemunu Wijeratne threatened an island wide strike and the circular was withdrawn.

 

Private Owners Victims?

 

Although many see private bus owners as the villains, they feel like victims. In April 2013, Wijeratne was threatening a strike if private bus owners were not allowed to increase fares. He said that normal private buses were incurring losses every day.

 

In May 2005, Wijeratne blamed the high accident rate on the government’s failure to prevent competing companies from plying the same routes at the same time. “I have proposed to the government and provincial authorities to introduce a regular timetable,”

 

On April 30 2015, Gemunu Wijeratne claimed that owners are required to give a monthly sum of Rs 17 billion to extortionists. He said that even though officials have been informed of this situation, the matter has been ignored. Wijeratne said that his association had also decided to complain to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption of Minister Ratnayaka’s allegedly questionable dealings with some bus owners.

 

Next week – what can be done?

UK Parliamentary Election 2015

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday 12 May 2015

 

Colman's Column3

Neil Kinnock in 1983: “I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to be old.”

 

What if the UK had PR?

It used to be received wisdom that a proportional representation system for parliamentary elections led inevitably to coalition government. The first past the post system in the UK for a long time meant that either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party governed because of having a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

In the 2015 election, the Conservative Party won a clear majority. Under a proportional representation system they would have had 90 fewer seats would have been forced into another coalition.

UKIP

 

Under PR, UKIP (the United  Kingdom Independence Party) would have been the third largest party in parliament. The Lib-Dems with their caring philosophy failed to soften their coalition partner’s policies. There is evidence that the Conservatives moved rightward  because of a perception that  UKIP’s xenophobic policies on immigration were popular. What kind of policies would emerge if the two parties were in government together? There is already the promise of stricter immigration rules, more cuts and a referendum on leaving the EU.

Coalition in 2010

In the 2010 UK general election, no single party achieved the seats required for an overall majority. A total of 326  seats  are needed for  an absolute majority, but because Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats and the Speaker’s team does not normally vote, the real number has been 323. The Conservatives had most seats and votes in 2010 but were 20 seats short of the magic number. A coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was established.

During the 2010 election campaign, Liberal-Democrat leader Nick Clegg was widely seen as a strong performer and his party achieved its largest popular vote since its foundation. Nevertheless, the nature of the electoral system meant they suffered a loss of five seats.

PR Voted Down

The Lib-Dems and their ancestor Liberal Party long fought for proportional representation in order to win seats in parliament that would more fairly match their votes. A referendum on proportional representation was a key feature of the coalition agreement. The 2011 referendum result was Yes 32.1% and No 67.9%.on a 41% turnout. Former Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown told the Guardian there been a “breach of faith”. He accused David Cameron of failing to disassociate himself from personal attacks by the No campaign on Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg.

Poisoned Chalice

The coalition has contributed to the downfall of the Lib-Dem party and its leader. After the 2015 general election, Clegg was one of three party leaders to resign. Although the Lib-Dems in 2010 presented themselves as being to the left of New Labour, they could not sustain that illusion while being complicit in austerity measures that hurt the poor while allowing the rich to prosper. The Conservatives claimed credit for what economic recovery there was and diverted any blame to the Lib-Dems.

Old-fashioned liberals might have hoped that with a long-delayed place in government the party might have restored Beveridge’s ideals in health and social welfare. The ideology of Ian Duncan Smith prevailed. The Liberal Democrats failed to make themselves heard in the row over tax avoidance, despite having pushed consistently to tighten the lax rules that Labour left behind. They were not able to defend the weak, the vulnerable and minorities, or to stop the privatisation of the health service. In his resignation speech, Clegg said “fear and grievance” had won, while Liberalism had lost.

Another Strange Death of the Liberal Party

Lib-Dem ministers came across as ditherers. This undermined the will-to-live of constituency organisers who had once been notable for their enthusiasm. In 2010, Lib-Dems won 57 seats; in 2015, this fell dramatically to eight. Under a PR system, they would have got 51. They lost their deposit in seven constituencies. Several prominent figures lost their seats – ex-ministers Ed Davey, Jo Swinson, Norman Baker, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander (beaten by the youngest MP since the 17th century – a 20-year old student) , David Laws,  Simon Hughes (who had served his constituency for 30 years and won 50% of the vote in 2010) and former leader Charles Kennedy.

 

High Profile Losers

 

Conservative minister Esther McVey was the highest-profile Tory loser, defeated by Labour in Wirral West. For Labour, Gordon Brown’s hatchet man Ed Balls lost (by one percentage point) to a conservative in Morley and Outwood. UKIP leader Nigel Farage failed to win the seat at Thanet South (although UKIP won control of the local council). UKIP retained one seat; former Conservative Douglas Carswell was re-elected to represent Clacton but with a greatly reduced majority.  The Tory candidate at Rochester and Strood soundly beat another Tory defector to UKIP, Mark Reckless. The UKIP leader had increased his party’s share of the vote in Thanet South by 27%, and nationally UKIP’s vote share was up by ten percentage points to a total of 3.9 million. The Electoral Reform Society has modelled what would have happened under a proportional voting system that makes use of the D’Hondt method of converting votes to seats. UKIP would have been a force to be reckoned with in the Commons with 83 seats.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett lost to Labour in Holborn St Pancras but Caroline Lucas retains the Brighton Pavilion constituency she won in 2010 giving the Greens one seat in the new parliament. Under PR, they would have got 24 seats.

Whither Scotland?

After the referendum on Scottish independence, I warned a smug unionist against crass triumphalism. I said that, although the vote for Scotland to stay in the UK was decisive, the fact that over 40% of Scots wanted to leave the Union should give pause for thought. The SNP might have lost the referendum vote but they convincingly won the general election vote, gaining 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. Under a PR system, this would have been reduced to 31. Gordon Brown’s once-safe Labour seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath fell to the SNP. The pro-Union Conservative party now has one seat in Scotland and the pro-Union Labour party has just one. The Lib-Dems also retained  one seat. The referendum was about a positive Scottish identity, rejection of the austerity that Labour had supported. The general election has confirmed a separatist move to the left in Scotland. The referendum did not seal the future of the Union. Resentment from Scotland at a Westminster government dominated by English Tories can only grow, as will English resentment at any preferential treatment given to keep Scotland in the Union.

Social Justice in the Future?



Cameron’s choice of personnel for the  new all-Conservative cabinet makes it clear the way the next five years will go and I am glad I have emigrated. Iain Duncan Smith has been re-appointed to achieve to find a further £12 billion in welfare “savings” and the Lib-Dems will not be there to stop him. While I am fully aware of the deficiencies of the Labour Party, I cannot imagine any circumstances in which I could vote for a Conservative candidate. There is much despair among my friends in the UK. They fear for the future of the welfare state and the forcing of poor people, the precariat, into poorly paid jobs with little security. Under the coalition, food banks increased from 56 to 445. More will be needed. Public services will continue to be handed over to incompetent and irresponsible private firms like G4S. The NHS will continue to be auctioned off to private for-profit companies.

Even former Tory prime minister John Major said: “We need to acknowledge the fact we have a pretty substantial underclass and there are parts of our country where we have people who have not worked for two generations and whose children do not expect to work. How can it be that in a nation that is the fifth richest nation in the world, that in the United Kingdom we have four of the poorest areas in Europe?”

Death Coaches

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday May 5 2015

Colman's Column3

Horrendous bus crashes are not newsworthy – happens all the time.

On April 16, I posted on Facebook. “We never hear sirens here. In the past hour we have heard lots of sirens.”  What is going on?  There have been no terrorist incidents since the LTTE were defeated in May 2009. Were the Tigers back again? Were Rajapaksa loyalists staging a coup?

I Googled  for news and found this: “Thirty seven persons suffered injuries when a private bus veered off the road and toppled down a steep slope in the 2nd mile post area along the Maddolsima-Passara road. According to the police, 23 women were among the injured. According to our correspondent, 13 of the injured who were in critical condition were transferred to the Badulla General Hospital. Further investigations into the accident have been launched by the police.”Local people told  us that  five people died instantly at the scene. I have not seen fatalities mentioned elsewhere.  I have not been able to find out anything else on the internet.

Statistics

According to the Ministry of Transport, there were 2,436 deaths on the roads of Sri Lanka in 2014. The total number of road accidents in that year was 28,012. Of those accidents, 9,166 involved motor cycles and 6,467 involved three-wheelers. One can understand why there are so many traffic police stopping motorcycles and three-wheelers. However, 2,936 accidents in 2014 involved private buses. Motorcycles and three-wheelers are a nuisance but a bus driven recklessly at top speed by a drunk can cause a lot more damage. A  Police Media Spokesperson said that the possibility of small vehicles falling prey to large ones had increased. According to a 2002 report from Peradeniya University, on average, road traffic accidents killed six people every day in Sri Lanka. In Western Province, 17% of accidents involved buses.

Demon Bus Drivers

There are more than 21,000 private buses and 3,000 state-run buses. According to police statistics, from January 1 to July 31 2014, private bus drivers were responsible for 2,733 cases of dangerous and negligent driving, 2,260 speeding offences, 367 drunk-driving arrests and 2,117 cases of unauthorised parking or stopping away from bus halts.  3,944 violations concerned buses operating without insurance and licence. Traffic experts say that the problem with private bus drivers is much worse than official figures indicate.

Two Boys

Several years ago, we became integrated into our local community because of tragedy. We were invited to a funeral home and were introduced to many of our fellow villagers and many bhikkus. The dead young man had just won a place at an Australian university and was looking forward to a successful career in IT. He was to be best man at his friend’s wedding the next day. The two boys had been born on the same day and had been friends all their short lives. Born on the same day and died on the same day. They were on a motor bike going to Passara to do some last minute shopping when they encountered an out-of-control bus. The driver was in a hurry to overtake and the boys were killed instantly. Last minutes of promising lives. The parents were mad with grief. The father suddenly became an old man as all the hope and joy drained out of him.

What to do?

The UN General Assembly proclaimed 2011 to 2020 the Decade of Action for Road Safety.  We are now four years in to the Decade. Had you noticed?  Among the recommendations are: establishing a lead agency for road safety in the country involving partners from a range of sectors; encouraging the development and adoption of model road safety legislation and sustained or increased enforcement of road safety laws and standards; public awareness and education; reduce drinking and driving and speeding. Former National Transport Commission Chairman and senior lecturer at Moratuwa University, Professor Amal Kumarage said that action in Sri Lanka under the Decade of Road Safety in 2012 has been limited to the launching ceremony.

Suggested Improvements

To this observer, bowser drivers seem to be the Gentlemen of the Roads of Sri Lanka.  Perhaps bowser drivers drive at a more sedate pace because they are carrying highly inflammable material. However, bus drivers should remember, when racing  to the next stop, that they are carrying highly fragile women and children. Most bowsers have a phone number on the back inviting other road users to make complaints about bad driving. Private buses should be made to do the same.

Police should ride in buses as “mystery passengers” or bus marshals, reporting traffic violations. Everybody has a mobile phone these days – passengers and other road users should photograph the number plate and driver of errant vehicles and report violations to the police.

In other countries, people wishing to work as drivers of vehicles that carry passengers have to have a special driving licence for which they have to pass a rigorous test, following intensive training.  National Transport Commission (NTC) Chairman Renuka Perera said, in September 2014, that the NTC would in, 2015, introduce a special exam for bus drivers who would get a Public Transport Licence. Do not hold your breath.

Police should stop all buses being driven dangerously or belching out black smoke. They should test the driver for narcotics and alcohol and check his licence and insurance. He should be taken to court and banned from driving if found guilty.

Police issued a circular ordering that all offenders would taken to court. Private Bus Owners Association President Gemunu Wijeratne threatened an island-wide strike and the police withdrew the circular. Police hope to issue a new circular to allow them to charge and take to court bus drivers guilty of traffic violations that are specific to passenger transport vehicles.

Police Can Stop Buses

Before May 2009, it was a common sight on the roads of Sri Lanka to see passengers lined up at the roadside while police searched buses. Academics may rack their brains to find a solution to road deaths, but one simple fact presents itself to this non-academic.  Occam’s Razor – police should be stopping buses. Under normal circumstances, one never sees police stopping buses. They have stopped my car without prior cause on many occasions to check my licence and insurance. While they are doing so, they are oblivious of badly maintained private buses careering down the road belching out black smoke in a race to get to the next stop before a rival.

A Special Police Team was deployed during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year from 11 to 16 April 2015. In the first news reports, I noticed that three wheeler drivers and  motorcyclists predominated and there were no bus drivers. However, the final count was 1,122 drivers charged with  drunk driving; 600 motorcyclists, 404 trishaw drivers, 33 motor car drivers, 17 van drivers, 37 lorry drivers and five private passenger bus drivers.

Counting the Cost

Road safety gets too low a profile in public debate. A respected public figure seemed rather dismissive about the fact that I was writing about buses. I contacted a Facebook friend who had been posting pictures of wrecked buses asking for his views on road safety. He thought that people were currently distracted by the political situation and the debate over the constitution and not concerned about road safety.

He told me the pictures he posted were of bus bombings by the LTTE in mid 2000. I pointed out to him that although bombs are no longer destroying buses, buses themselves are making our roads deadly. From 1977 to 2007, 120,848 accidents were reported in which 40,000 people died and 370,000 were injured. More than 75% of road deaths were from the age group 20 to 55 years – family  breadwinners. The estimated cost of road trauma in Sri Lanka was Rs. 10.25 billion, nearly 2% of GNP, as long ago as 2001.

A “concerned citizen” wrote to a newspaper: “Private buses seem to be run entirely to suit the owners, drivers and conductors. The passengers are important only till they pay their fare. After that what happens to them is nobody’s business… I am told that the police are also in tow with these maniac drivers. You never see police officers pulling up bus drivers…. Probably they are getting a cut from the bus drivers, so they turn a blind eye to their faults. I do hope this letter will catch the eye of the authorities and make them catch both the errant bus drivers as well as the misguided police officers who are behind such men.”

“Concerned citizen” wrote in 2002. Researching Sri Lankan newspapers back to the year of the Peradeniya report, I was depressed that people are still saying the same things thirteen years on, and nothing has changed.

 

Etc Etc Amen. Part Two of a review of a novel by Howard Male

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 3 2015.

Part One can be found here:

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/etc-etc-amen-part-one-of-a-review/

 

 

male plus cat

 

Howard Male has written on music for the Independent, Songlines, The Word and other publications and on the arts in general for theartsdesk.com. He is also a musician. Etc Etc Amen is his first novel.

cover

Part Two

“Let go of your belief – it’s more trouble than it’s worth! Many have  died fighting over the small print from the undeniably ambiguous texts of their holy books. Belief is an End not a Beginning. Making a choice with regards to a theological position is patently absurd. Because…We. Know. Nothing.”

 

Male’s novel deals with rock god Zachary Bekele who founds a non-religion called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis.

KUU Theology

KUU stands for the Knowing Unknowing Universe. Male says: “I wanted to see if it was possible to devise a theology which went completely against the troubling grain of all that had gone before it, yet made perfect if eccentric sense as an alternative.” “Knowing” suggests something that demonstrates intelligence as well as something beyond our comprehension. “Unknowable” means we have to be content with unresolved guesses because all religion is guesswork. “Universe” symbolises what we find impossible to understand. The more knowledge we acquire the more fragile and contingent we feel. “The Gratuitous just keeps on raining down”.

KUU-ism is a middle way between theism and atheism; an escape from the “tribal binary prison”. Even our greatest thinkers only seem to pose either/or questions or definitive statements. Everything is reduced to the taking of sides while the truths remain ambivalent and overlooked. “Sitting on the fence might actually give us the best view”.

The Tripod built in Marrakech symbolises this third way. It is a middle way between the belief in an interventionist or non-interventionist deity. The KUU is semi-interventionist, and recognises `Cosmic Nudges’ – KUU-incidences (what Carl Jung called Synchronicities). KUU offers a welcome to refugees from any faith or even “agonised agnostics” and atheists. Bekele describes himself as “part evangelical agnostic and part woolly-minded fantasist”. He also says he is, “just a born-again questioner with a novel interpretation of the facts”.

KUU asserts that science is just as likely to be made up of bizarre hypotheses as ancient religion was made of bizarre gods. Scientists have not “made a dent on some of the central mysteries of mind, soul or creation”. KUU is not a personifying name of an entity that explains everything. “Why should we suddenly have all the answers now any more than we did two hundred or even two thousand years ago?”

Religions have dumb rules. The bible gives equal weight to sartorial and dietary advice and serious misdemeanours.  KUU Ground Rules are not Commandments. There are Eleven KUU Non-Commandments (or Gentle Suggestions), concerned with the individual’s well-being, sense of self and relationship with the possibility of a spiritual realm. Here are a few from the eleven: “You can laugh. You can doubt. Meditate on the Mystery of Music. Embrace and delight in the hello of the Cosmic Nudge. Forget about love, Empathy and respect are the real deal. Respect is rarely blind, stupid, jealous or crazy because it requires prior thought and has to be earned.

The central idea is that a connection can be cultivated between The Knowing Unknowable Universe and the receptive “entertainer of the possibility on Earth”. You may be enlightened if you entertain the possibility that unexplainable events such as coincidences are Cosmic Nudges. “It is part of our hardwiring that the unexplained is not worthy of our attention…the fact that you have never witnessed a serious car crash does not mean that car crashes don’t exist…the one form of unusual occurrence that we don’t feel self-conscious about discussing is coincidence…what if coincidences are the subtlest form of supernatural  phenomena?” “The Cosmic Nudge is the light of infinity glimpsed through a tiny rent in the opaque curtain of everydayness”. We are neither favoured nor persecuted by a higher being. Cosmic Nudges do not reward or punish, they just gently tease, they are playful not frightening.

“Here are some suggestions on how to live a more fulfilling life while also getting the occasional glimpse that there could be to that life than meets the eye. Let those glimpses enrich your daily existence but don’t let them go to your head. Be aware and creative, pursue wisdom knowing it can’t be attained, and find someone to love and have a good time with”.

“Get up off your knees! Don’t pray. Dance!” When you lose yourself in dance you lose your ego.

Optimistic doubt: “instead of living in constant disappointment at not receiving what you think is rightfully yours , you live for the moment and so experience pleasant surprise when good fortune comes your way. Life is the now. “

In spite of this sensible approach, the KUU’s followers decide to interpret KUU doctrine in a way that redefines the KUU as a supernatural entity.

Influences and comparisons

While I was reading the book, a number of possible influences came to my mind. I was not suggesting plagiarism but was intrigued enough to ask the author. I was reminded of Vonnegut’s Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent, and of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood in which Hazel Motes grows up struggling with doubts regarding salvation and original sin. Hazel’s war experience turns him into an atheist and he preaches a gospel of antireligion through his Church of No Christ. I wondered if there might be echoes of The Dice Man by Luke Rinehart.

 

The film Privilege starring Paul Jones (a rock star playing a rock star) directed by Peter Watkins and written by Johnny Speight dealt with a music idol who develops messianic powers.

 

 

Male has not seen the film. He admits to being influenced  by “in some sense every decent writer who has ever made me forget I was reading a work of fiction while I’ve been reading their work” However, he has not read Wise Blood and only vaguely recalls The Dice Man.

KUU seemed to have a bit of Buddhism in it, with the absence of a supreme being and prescriptive commandments and the notion of a “middle” way. All faiths except KUU are focused on blinkered certainty. “All moral codes stem from a paradoxical blend of selfishness and altruism…KUUism is about responsibility, rather than the handing over of that responsibility to a higher order, be it human or supernatural”.  I noted that Zachary’s band was called The Now. Male told me: “Buddhism, oddly enough, I only began investigating with any genuine curiosity after I’d finished writing the novel, as my sister – who has been a halfway house Buddhist for about eight years – saw a lot of Buddhism in KUUism.  The new novel Serious Fun explicitly shows this influence in that it centres on a character who has recently taken up mindful meditation.”

Male told me: “KUUism had – as its two starting points – the number of unlikely remarkable coincidences that were happening to me as I considered the idea of the cosmic nudge, and the self-appointed task of devising a religion (non-religion) that was the opposite of the existing religions yet morally and (to a degree) rationally sound.”

 

Reception

Male has written much rock journalism and continues to write expertly on what has come to be known as “World Music”. He brings his own personal inside knowledge of the rock world to the writing of this novel.  He was encouraged by supportive comments from respected music journalists like Charlie Gillett, Robin Denselow, Mick Brown, David Quantick  and Nick Coleman. Coleman described the novel as “an art-school rock-theological satirical thriller.” The book  received glowing praise from Tony Visconti, an American record producer  who has had a long association with David Bowie. Visconti said: “It’s a wonderful book! I am even more awestruck the second time around. Very few novelists get it right when they use Rock as the context for a novel. Howard Male got it right. One of the best novels I’ve read in the last decade’. Whitbread prize-winning novelist Patrick Neate thought it was “something really special”.

Howard Male tells me that he has completed a sequel called Serious Fun  and has started work on the third novel of the trilogy. He is now working on a screenplay of Etc Etc Amen. Etc Etc Amen is available on Kindle.

 

 

 http://www.nation.lk/edition/insight/item/40333-howard-male%E2%80%99s-novel-etc-etc-amen.html

Hate Speech and Free Speech

This article appeared on page 7 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday April 28 2015.

 Colman's Column3

I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope. Julie Burchill on calls to ‘silence’ Katie Hopkins.

 

Hate Speech Law for Sri Lanka

Cabinet Spokesman announced that the government plans to revise the Penal Code to make hate speech a crime a crime punishable by a two -year prison term. The LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) had asserted that hate speech had exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions in Sri Lanka.

Rwanda Example

Kigali, capital of Rwanda is the safest city in Africa today. Twenty years after the genocide in which 800,000 people were slaughtered, Rwanda has transformed into a peaceful and prosperous nation.

In Rwanda in June 1983, a new radio station called RTLMC (Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines) began broadcasting. Drunken presenters found a large receptive audience of resentful thugs. David Yanagizawa-Drott, a Harvard political scientist, estimates that nine percent of the deaths in the genocide, forty-five thousand Tutsis, can be attributed to incitement by Radio RTLM.

Today, journalists criticising the Rwanda government can be prosecuted for defamation. The law prohibits political parties from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. President Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression while underestimating the importance of stability.

Sri Lankans Hating on Facebook

According to a report by the CPA (Centre for Policy Alternatives), hate speech is a particular problem on the internet and a particular problem in Sri Lanka. The CPA report says that out of a population of 21 million, there are more than 2.3 million users of social media, the majority of them male. Social media provide ”low risk, low cost and high impact online spaces to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

In Plato’s Republic, there is the tale of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a ring that makes him invisible. He has sex with a queen, kills her king, and takes his throne. The impunity of invisibility is corrupting. Physical invisibility only occurs in fiction but the internet has granted us the license of anonymity and trolls operate under a cloak of invisibility to behave in a way they would not contemplate if they were visible in the real world. They are unaccountable- as Kathryn Schultz puts it:  “like gods and despots, beyond the reach of custom, obligation, and law.”

The CPA report only studies Facebook. One could argue that the CPA’s own website, Groundviews, and its rival Colombo Telegraph, also provide space “to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

The Offensive Katie Hopkins

Most Sri Lankans will be fortunate in that they have never heard of, or, even luckier, never heard, Katie Hopkins. Masochists among you might wish to look at YouTube to get a flavour. Hopkins first appeared on UK television as a contestant on the reality television programme The Apprentice in 2007. She now writes a column for British newspaper the Sun.  She describes herself as a “conduit for truth”. Critics accuse her of expressing controversial opinions to make money.

On 17 April 2015, Hopkins wrote that migrants were “cockroaches”. This appeared in the same week that 400 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean and more than 10,000 were rescued.

An online petition to ban Hopkins from television accumulated over 75,000 signatures. By 21 April, a petition calling on the Sun to sack Hopkins attracted 250,000 signatures.

I note that the CPA report was based solely on research done into Facebook. There has been a lot of noise on Facebook about Hopkins. Julie Burchill is a celebrated polemicist and quite practised at giving offence (and taking it). Burchill detests Hopkins, her views and unprofessional mode of expressing them. However, she would not want Hopkins to be silenced. “I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope”.

No Right not to Be Offended

 

Josie Appleton, a free-speech campaigner, argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this, the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.” She describes many frivolous and harmful prosecutions in the UK. We must have the right to offend. No one has the right to be protected from being offended.

 

I am offended when Colombo Telegraph allows someone to call me “a paedophile tourist“.  However, I am inclined to think that the person saying that is just an inadequate boy who feels tough like Gyges hiding behind a pseudonym. I wonder if he would say that to my face. My shoulders are broad and I would not like Uvindu Kurukulusuriya to go to jail for that kind of infantile nonsense.

 

Who Decides?

British journalist Paul Harris offended Anton Balasingham and was punished by being deported from Sri Lanka. Harris gives his own account in his book Delightfully Imperfect published by Vijitha Yapa. Harris wrote in the London Daily Telegraph about flaws in the peace process and called Karuna a “bad egg” and Thamil Chelvan a “rotter”. He called Prabhakaran “Chief Genial Fatty”. It was this irreverent stuff as much as accounts of child conscription and fascist rallies that angered the LTTE. Harris recalls meeting the current prime minister at a Galidari function when Ranil pointedly refused to shake his hand.  The newspaper Nawa Pereliya said that “international arms dealers” were paying Harris’s accommodation bills. That same Rajitha Senaratne who announced the new hate speech law owned Nawa Pereliya. Can we trust people like this to be the mediators and moderators of public debate?

For and Against

 

In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: a Biography of the First Amendment, Antony Lewis warns the reader against the potential for governments to suppress freedom of speech in times of fear. Jeremy Waldron, professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, was critical of Lewis’s stance on hate speech. Waldron argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. Waldron believes that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

 

What to Do?

 

Sanjana Hattotuwa writes: “Civility, tolerance and respect for diversity are as hard to find online as they are in Sri Lanka’s mainstream party political framework even post-war.” Incivility, intolerance and venomous hatred are easy to find on Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph.  The comment threads are choked with pseudonymous hate-mongers.  Hattotuwa writes: “It would be a tragedy if the country’s only remaining spaces to ideate, critical (sic) reflect and robustly debate – which are online – are taken over by hate-mongers, to the extent they are allowed to do so in the real world”.

 

Do Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph create the “climate of mutual respect and tolerance” that Waldron desires? Rather than hypocritically neglecting to put its own house in order, CPA could avoid incitement to racial hatred. I recall that, on July 19 2013, during the halal controversy, Groundviews (in an article by no named author)  tried to make something out of a non-issue relating to the brand name on a packet of dates. This could have exacerbated  tensions.

 

Without resorting to law, most publications and websites can use their editorial powers to reduce hatred.  Groundviews tells potential contributors: “Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved. Comments that seek to inflame tensions on the ground, or are of a defamatory nature, will not be approved, or will be taken off the website as soon as possible.” It is not self-censorship to enforce your own sensible rules.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He Is the Lime Man for the County

LimeMan2

This man makes a probably meagre living from selling limes and sometimes mangoes, papayas and bananas. He is not a beggar. He has some disability in his legs and gets about in a wheelchair cum tricycle. (Don’t ask me why his legs work for pedalling but not walking.) He is out in all weathers trying to make an honest living from selling fruit. We have seen him out in the blazing heat and the pouring monsoon rain and cyclonic winds. Limes are available in many places (the best ones, the juiciest, come from our own garden) but we always buy from him. We never ask for change and sometimes give him much more than he asks. We buy him shirts and sarongs from time to time. He had an accident with his tricycle and could not afford the repairs. We paid. I say these things not to boast but to suggest that people who complain about beggars and street vendors being out to cheat everybody would feel much better in themselves if they changed their outlook on life. It is a selfish thing – ditch the begrudgery and give. You will enjoy it. We are not rich but it does not break our bank account to give the Lime Man a little extra. He feels better for our giving and we feel better too. Win win.

limeMan1

Greville Janner

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday April 21 2015 under the heading “Cowardly and Wicked” (accompanied by a picture of Lord Longford rather than Lord Janner).

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/51-90502-news-detail-cowardly-and-wicked.html

“Cowardly and wicked”  were the words used by Keith Vaz MP in 1991 to describe the allegations against Greville Janner.

Colman's Column3

Keith Vaz is chair of the Commons home affairs select committee. Vaz enjoys portraying himself as a champion of the voiceless, happy to castigate the Home Office over its handling of the current investigation into child abuse.

Lord Janner Will not Stand Trial.

cameron

Baron Janner of Braunstone is a prominent ex-barrister, aged 86, widowed with three children. As Greville Janner, he represented Leicester West as a Labour MP for almost 30 years. Janner is also a former president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and he has been prominent in the field of education about the Holocaust.  He was President of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism, and chaired the All-Party Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group. He co-founded (along with Prince Hassan of Jordan) the Coexistence Trust, a charity to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

janner geller

After retiring from the House of Commons in 1997, he became a life peer. Janner was a member of the Magic Circle. One of his few subsequent forays into the public eye came in 2002, when Uri Geller, a friend, arranged for him to accompany Michael Jackson and David Blaine on a tour of Parliament. Lord Janner was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009 and now requires round-the-clock care for his dementia.

jac

The UK Crown Prosecution Service said on 16 April 2015 that Janner would not be tried for sexual offences against children. Alison Saunders, the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions), said that because of Janner’s dementia a trial would not be in the public interest.

In statement issued through lawyers, Janner’s family said he is entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. “As the Crown Prosecution Service indicated today, this decision does not mean or imply that any of the allegations that have been made are established or that Lord Janner is guilty of any offence”.

In 1995, the DPP decided not to try Szymon Serafinowicz, a retired carpenter from Surrey, under the War Crimes Act in connection with murders of three Jewish people during the Second World War because of his dementia. Janner condemned the DPP’s decision. “I don’t care what bloody age they are,” he told The Jewish Chronicle. “These criminals should have been dealt with years ago.”

The Faulds File

I remember Andrew Faulds from my childhood. He played  Captain Jet Morgan in Journey into Space on the radio in the 1950s. He had already been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1948. He was Labour Member of Parliament for the Smethwick constituency from 1966 until his retirement in 1997. When he  died in 2000 at the age of 77, Michael White, in his Guardian obituary described Faulds as “unmistakably loud and thespian… a man of deeply-held passions…who lacked either the patience or the subtlety to do effective justice to those concerns at Westminster.”

 

Shortly before retiring, he created an archive of the paperwork he had accrued during three decades in Parliament and lodged it at the library of the London School of Economics. Among the 263 boxes,  is a four-page leaflet published by a group which called itself ‘Concerned Leicester Parents’ and  a 24-page booklet, which claimed on its cover to reveal: ‘How people in high places covered-up for a Parliamentary paedophile’.

Janner and Frank Beck

youngJanner

From 1994 to 1997, I worked at the Department of Health as a policy advisor to ministers on child protection. Someone I often met at Home Office meetings was Alison Saunders, who is now Director of Public Prosecutions.

FrankBeck

One of my colleagues spent a great deal of his time on the Frank Beck case. Beck was an officer-in-charge of several children’s homes in Leicester during the 1970s and 1980s. Beck died in prison in June 1994. He had been  convicted at Leicester Crown Court in November 1991 of 17 charges of sexual and physical abuse of boys and girls including rape, buggery, indecent assault and assault and sentenced to five life terms. My colleague had a very fat file of correspondence in which members of the public made serious and credible allegations against Greville Janner that connected him with Frank Beck.

Indeed, Janner’s name came up during Beck’s trial. One witness, who had previously said he had had a two-year sexual relationship with Janner, named the politician as one of his abusers. The jury was told the claims were a “red-herring” and irrelevant. In 1991, during the investigation leading to Beck’s trial, a man, Paul Winston,  alleged he had been groomed by Janner from the age of 13. Janner’s only police interview took place that year at a police station in Leicester. He attended with his solicitor and gave “no comment” answers. The CPS advised there was insufficient evidence to charge.

Closing Ranks

mirror0312911

In 1991, the House of Commons rallied to Janner’s defence. That scourge of Sri Lanka, Labour’s Keith Vaz, a fellow Leicester MP, rose to deplore the “cowardly and wicked” slur on a “distinguished” colleague. The majority of the MPs who spoke in Janner’s defence were Conservatives.

keith-vaz-labour_2011398a

Jay Rayner was a young freelancer in 1991 trying to do a story on Janner’s connection with Beck. He now recalls the wall of silence he encountered. He writes that Vaz is happy to castigate the Home Office over its handling of the current investigation into child abuse. Rayner tweeted Vaz to ask his views on the DPP decision. Vaz blocked him.

jannerandblair

 

Blair made Janner a life peer in 1997 – after the credible allegations mad against him in 1991.

 

janner-and-cherie

During Operation Magnolia in 2002, another Leicestershire Police inquiry, residents of a care home made further  allegations against Janner. Police decided to take no action against him.

During Operation Dauntless in 2007, an individual made complaints about serious sexual assault against three people, including Janner, over incidents alleged to have taken place in 1981. The CPS ruled there was insufficient evidence. Mick Creedon, now chief constable of Derbyshire police, but then a detective sergeant on the Beck case, told the Times last year that he and colleagues wanted to charge Janner but senior officers ordered him to neither arrest Janner nor search his London flat.

Anti-Semitism

A website connected with neo-Nazi groups has  been publicising the Janner case. They will no doubt exploit Janner’s activities for anti-Semitic purposes. For many years, bloggers campaigning against paedophiles in high places have been pointing out the fact that Janner and Leon Brittan are Jewish.

Jewish friends have described to me their own encounters with Janner. One said, he was so “galled by his pomposity and unmistakable air of the huckster that I distanced myself from his causes. I did not want this creep speaking for me”. He went on to say that he was frustrated by the fact that Janner seemed to be above criticism on the left and among Jewish activists. “I was shot down…for daring to express my strongly-held view that he was a wrong-un”.

Innocent until Proved Guilty?

In statement issued through lawyers, Janner’s family said he is entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. “As the Crown Prosecution Service indicated today, this decision does not mean or imply that any of the allegations that have been made are established or that Lord Janner is guilty of any offence”.

I have often written against witch hunts, vigilantism and smearing by unsubstantiated rumours. As Lord McAlpine said: “There is nothing as bad as this that you can do to people. Because they [paedophiles] are quite rightly figures of public hatred. And suddenly to find yourself a figure of public hatred, unjustifiably, is terrifying “. It is possibly worse to be falsely accused when you are someone with few resources. Dawn Reed and Christopher Lillie were cleared by a court but they lived in fear of their lives when the Sun whipped up a lynch mob.

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2014/04/05/the-persecution-of-lillie-and-reed/

CPS lawyers spent nine months studying evidence gathered by Leicestershire police’s Operation Enamel. Detectives approached more than 2,000 potential witnesses and interviewed more than 25 men who claim Janner abused them when they were children in care. Some of them told police about extreme sadistic behaviour, involving the use of blindfolds and restraints.

Credible Allegations

DPP Alison Saunders has stated publicly and clearly that both the CPS and Leicestershire police were at fault for the failure of previous inquiries. The CPS statement conceded that Janner, while “in a position of authority and trust as the local MP for Leicester West”, befriended the manager (Frank Beck) of a children’s care home to allow him access to children.

In some cases, the CPS decides there is not sufficient evidence to take a case to court. Ms Saunders said quite clearly that her office had decided that there WAS SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE for  Janner  to stand trial on 22 sex offences against children. He would have been charged with 14 indecent assaults on a male under 16 between 1969 and 1988; two indecent assaults between 1984 and 1988; four counts of buggery of a male under 16 between 1972 and 1987; and two counts of buggery between 1977 and 1988.

DPP Criticised

Leicestershire police took the unusual step of issuing a statement saying they might challenge the DPP’s decision in the courts, possibly calling for a Judicial Review. Sir Clive Loader, Leicestershire Police and Crime Commissioner, a Conservative, said the decision was “not just wrong” but “wholly perverse” and “contrary to any notion of natural justice”. The Assistant Chief Constable of Leicestershire feared that other victims would be dissuaded from coming forward. “

Victims and their families are also exploring avenues of redress through civil proceedings now that there criminal proceedings have been ruled out. Liz Dux, of Slater & Gordon solicitors, said the 25 alleged victims could claim for up to £100,000 each. She said: “If they are successful, damages could be very sizeable.”

One victim said: “Let someone feel the pain and suffering that I’ve endured and am still going to endure for the rest of my life. It’s not a case of being found guilty or going to prison – it’s about being believed after so long being told we were lying. Justice needs to be served.”

hamish Baillie

Hamish Baillie, one of Janner’s victims.

The Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who used parliamentary privilege to be the first to publicly  name the Liberal MP Cyril Smith as a paedophile, said Janner should be stripped of his peerage. (Danczuk‘s relentless efforts on behalf of his constituents forced the reluctant Sri Lankan authorities to take action against a thuggish local politician who murdered a British tourist and raped his girlfriend.) “This terrible decision is bringing the whole justice system into disrepute and will be devastating news to the alleged victims.”

DPP Defended

The evidential test prosecutors must apply before a criminal charge is laid has been passed. This evidential test was also passed in the three previous police investigations but the CPS failed to charge Janner. Many have condemned the DPP’s decision  on the grounds that  Janner could have been put before a court where his fitness to stand trial could be assessed by experts publicly in front of the trial judge. One   lawyer defended the decision. She told me: “She has had the guts to make a difficult and unpopular decision. The right to a fair trial is enshrined in the European Convention on Human rights .Inability to follow proceedings or instruct lawyers will prevent a fair trial. The DPP has had four medical reports saying that he is not fit to stand trial.  There would be no benefit in bring Janner before a court when the judge’s decision would be the same as hers. Indeed it would be regarded as an abuse of the process of the court ”.

Etc Etc Amen Part One of a review

 

 

 

 

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April 19 2015.

 

http://www.nation.lk/edition/insight/item/40005-airport-novel-with-ideas-above-its-station.html

cover

Howard Male described his first novel as: “An airport novel with ideas above its station. A literary novel that’s having too much fun for its own good.”

 male plus cat

“We have the skeleton of a philosophy but, as you know, it’s primarily a philosophy committed to its lack of commitment to the very ideas it puts forward”.

So says Barney Merrick in Howard Male’s novel Etc Etc Amen. The novel  is stimulating and entertaining on a number of levels. Male says: “It’s a love story, a hate story, a murder mystery, a suicide mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a satire on organised religion, it’s not sci fi, it’s not horror, it’s not a rock novel – despite the fact it has elements of all those genres.”

 

My own interpretation is that the novel’s main thrust is as a satire on religion but it also provides a wry picture of the rock music business. I think I also detect a satire on the parasitic nature of journalism in general as well as rock journalism in particular.

There is a strong element of the page-turning thriller- I received a few surprising jolts as I was reading so I must take care not to emit any spoilers. There is also a vivid evocation of Marrakech, which brought back happy memories for me.

Male’s main creation in the book is rock god Zachary Bekele, who founds a non-religion (which becomes a cult) called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis. The St Paul of KUU is erstwhile rock journalist Paul Coleridge. The novel is structured upon extracts from The KUU Hypothesis, selections from The Life and Death of Zachary B by Paul Coleridge, a narrative written  in London 2005 about the 1970s, and accounts of a visit to Marrakech in February 2007 by a female journalist, August, and a photographer, Damian.  They are investigating a series of deaths of KUU followers and are awaiting an interview with the cult’s Leader Who Is Not a Leader

Zachary’s Story

Rock journalist Paul Coleridge is assigned to interview Zachary Bekele who is a 70s glam rock star.  We piece together Zac’s biography from extracts from Paul Coleridge’s memoir and from the visit of August and Damian to Marrakech. Zac’s father, Girma Bekele, had made a fortune selling stolen icons from Ethiopian monasteries. His dodgy reputation adds further intrigue to Zac’s persona.

Paul gets an early warning about Zac’s character when the star plays table football in an unsportsmanlike manner  and then  reneges on the promised interview. Paul has to work up the Man of Mystery angle to meet his deadline. Paul begins to feel that his articles have played a significant role in promoting Zac’s success. Between 1972 and 1975, he was one of only two journalists to whom Zac would talk.  Zac seeks Paul’s opinion about new tracks, but will not accept anything but praise.

Coleridge recalls Zachary’s early performances in the 70s: “vocally, he was part Scott Walker and part Marvin Gaye”. He was an intellectual as well as a rocker; he told an interviewer, “CS Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis were guiding lights.” He acknowledges his English roots – he was born in Chelmsford and loves the Kinks and the Stones- but his father was from Ethiopia. “We’re about soul music from Saturn. Vibes from Venus”. There is something of Bowie and Bolan about Zachary B.  Memories of seeing Arthur Brown perform as the God of Hell Fire in a blazing helmet came back to me as I was reading.

arthur-brown2

Nick Valentine, Zac’s manager says: “Don’t let all that peace and love bullshit fool you. He needs fame even more than he needs money”. Zac develops delusions of grandeur. As well as the attentions of the usual kind of groupies, he also has a stalker who hoards his cigarette butts like religious relics.

When Punk came along in 1976, or so the received wisdom goes, it was a rebellion against pretentious “progressive” rock. In fact, Johnny Rotten often talks about his respect for artists like my former neighbour Peter Hammill of the “progressive” band Van der Graaf Generator.  As long ago as 1977 Lydon  said: “Peter Hammill’s great. A true original. I’ve just liked him for years. If you listen to him, his solo albums, I’m damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer. The credit he deserves, just has not been given to him. I love all his stuff”.

Bowie

Zac is not ready for punk. Changing musical tastes make him redundant and a spectacular at Trafalgar Square intended to resurrect his career instead finishes it off.  Zac’s solipsism makes him deaf and blind to the discomfort and displeasure of the audience and the other musicians. “Since Trafalgar, in the eyes of the public, he’d come to represent the more farcical, cartoon-like aspects of the rock world: he’d become lumped in with Gary Glitter rather than David Bowie, and it must have hurt like hell”. He succumbs to the degenerate rock lifestyle of groupies and drugs. “During 1975 and 1976, Zac’s coke and cocaine habit gathered further momentum”. Paul and Zac’s wife Jody bond as they both become sidelined.

Garyglitter

Glam Rock

This novel deals, in part, with the early pre-punk 1970s that gave birth to a strange phenomenon known as Glam Rock. I lived through that era and survived to tell the tale. Glam Rock did not appeal to me but I can appreciate Male’s respect for the more talented practitioners, such as Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Roxy Music and their rougher US equivalents, the New York Dolls. Even the better acts toyed  with androgyny and sexual ambiguity – “gods dressed as goddesses”. Lower class versions hit the charts with other people’s songs but were mainly ludicrous bandwagon jumpers – “mutton dressed as lamb Second Division”.  Zac describes them as “builders dressed as princesses with their stubble and acne-pocked jaw lines making a mockery of their meticulously glossed lips”.

sweet

Rock and Religion

I recall seeing live performances by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Brown wore outlandish costumes (although he sometimes stripped naked) and a flaming helmet as he declaimed: “I am the god of hell fire!” The record was produced by Kit Lambert and Pete Townshend and issued by The Who’s Track Records label. It sold over a million. Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was in Brown’s band when I saw them. Brown was also notable for the extreme make-up he wore onstage, which would later be reflected in the stage acts of Alice Cooper, (there is a character in Male’s novel called Alice Cooper- she is female) and Kiss. Brown’s behaviour was so outrageous he was even  kicked off a Jimi Hendrix tour. Brown is still performing 50 years later.

Townshend himself has had spiritual moments. Since the late-’60s, Townshend has been a disciple of Indian mystic Meher Baba “I heard the voice of God. In an instant, in a very ordinary place at an unexceptional time, I yearned for some connection with a higher power. This was a singular, momentous epiphany – a call to the heart. “Jimmy Page spoke about: “that fusion of magick and music… alchemical process.” Dylan flirted with born-again Christianity and then explored his Jewishness. Later he said: “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music”. Alice Cooper himself (Vincent Furnier) says: “It doesn’t matter how many drugs I take, I’m not fulfilled. This isn’t satisfying. There’s a spiritual hunger going on. Everybody feels it. If you don’t feel it now, you will. Trust me. You will…Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s the real rebellion.”  Male mentions John Lennon’s notorious comments: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right, and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

More on KUU theology next week.

 

Immunity and Community Part Two

A version of this article appeared on page A10 of Ceylon Today on Thursday April 16 2015. It is a sequel to an article published on April 7: http://www.ceylontoday.lk/51-89454-news-detail-immunity-and-community.html

Colman's Column3

My grandfather, before the First World War, worked as groom and footman at Berkeley Castle near Bristol. He was born at Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire.

Edward Jenner

jenner

Many years earlier Edward Jenner also worked at Berkeley Castle. I have seen the building where Jenner changed the world. The book Smallpox Zero includes President Thomas Jefferson’s letter of congratulation to Jenner. Edward Jenner was born on 17 May 1749 in Berkeley, the eighth of nine children. His father, the Reverend Stephen Jenner, was the vicar of Berkeley. Edward Jenner went to school in Wotton-under-Edge and Cirencester. During this time, he was inoculated for smallpox.

Edward Jenner called smallpox the Speckled Monster. During his time, it killed ten per cent of the population, rising to 20% in urban areas where infection spread easily and it was responsible for one in three of all child deaths.   Noting the common fact that milkmaids were generally immune to smallpox, Jenner postulated that the pus in the blisters that milkmaids received from cowpox protected them from smallpox. He coined the term vaccination – the word vacca means ‘cow’ in Latin. In 1979, the World Health Organization declared smallpox an eradicated disease. This was the result of coordinated public health efforts by many people, but vaccination was an essential component of this success.

Even in Jenner’s time, there was opposition to vaccination. Variolators, (those who made much profit from collecting the pus of affected patients to promote immunity) objected for commercial reasons. Some opposed vaccination on religious grounds, saying that they would not be treated with substances originating from God’s lowlier creatures. Variolation was forbidden by Act of Parliament in 1840 and vaccination with cowpox was made compulsory in 1853. This in its turn led to protest marches and vehement opposition from those who demanded freedom of choice. The term “conscientious objector” came out of resistance to the 1853 statute requiring the vaccination of all infants. Forty-five years later, the government added a “conscience clause,” allowing parents to apply for an exemption. The exemption clause was rather vague, requiring only that the objector satisfy a magistrate that it was “a matter of conscience.”

Conscientious Objection

Taking one anti-vaccination website at random, here are some of the arguments one finds:

 

  • Pharmaceutical companies cannot  be trusted
  • All vaccines are loaded with chemicals and other poisons
  • Fully vaccinated children suffer more chronic illnesses than unvaccinated children
  • Many countries are waking up to the dangers of vaccines
  • Many opponents are prey to what Eula Biss, in her book On Immunity, calls “a variety of preindustrial nostalgia”
  • An important element of opposition is libertarian, either on the left or on the right, and anti-government.

 

On Fox News, Sean Hannity announced that he would not trust “President Obama to tell me whether to vaccinate my kids.”  Senator Rand Paul, a potential Republican candidate for President—and a doctor—said: “I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” He did not provide evidence to support this anecdote.

Deadly Immunity?

Proponents say that vaccination is safe and one of the greatest health developments of the 20th century. They point out that illnesses, including rubella, diphtheria, smallpox, polio, and whooping cough, are now prevented by vaccination and millions of children’s lives are saved. I recently read in The Lancet that Hepatitis-C will soon be history. They contend that adverse reactions to vaccines are extremely rare.

Opponents of vaccination today say that children’s immune systems can deal with most infections naturally, and that injecting questionable vaccine ingredients into a child may cause side effects, including seizures, paralysis, and death. Some who commented on last week’s article spoke of a link between vaccines and autism and expressed a justifiable suspicion of the motives of Big Pharma. In 2005, Robert F Kennedy Jr wrote an article arguing that there was a cover-up of a link between thimerosal used in vaccines and speech delays, attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and autism.

robert-kennedy-jr-

Kennedy’s article was corrected many times within days of publication, and was eventually retracted and deleted. An 18-month investigation by the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions concluded that Kennedy’s allegation was unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, “thimerosal was [being] voluntarily removed from childhood vaccines distributed in the United States as a precaution,” prompted by a joint request by the American Academy of Paediatrics and the US Public Health Service.

“I think it is dangerous that he is spreading misinformation about something that’s very important for public health,” Senator Richard Pan, a paediatrician, said in an interview. “Autism rates have continued to rise even though we are not using thimerosal in vaccines for children,” he added. “We still haven’t figured out exactly what causes autism. We do know it’s not vaccines.”

 

Autism and Vaccination

 

In February 1998, the Lancet published an article by Andrew Wakefield MD, which claimed, “Rubella virus is associated with autism and the combined measles, mumps, and rubella [MMR] vaccine… has also been implicated.” Anti-vaccination groups and parents began using Wakefield’s article as rationale to opt-out of vaccinating their children.

andrew.wakefield
Between 2003 and 2012, Brian Deer, an investigative reporter, published 36 articles, which accused Wakefield of “falsifying medical histories of children and essentially concocting a picture, which was the picture he was contracted to find by lawyers hoping to sue vaccine manufacturers and to create a vaccine scare.”  Ten of Wakefield’s twelve co-authors released a “Retraction of an Interpretation” in Lancet, stating, “We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.”

 

The Lancet stated on February 2 2010, “It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect.” On January 5 2011, the British Journal of Medicine published an article stating that Wakefield received over $674,000 from lawyers and that, of 12 children examined, five had developmental problems before being vaccinated and three never had autism.

In 2011, Wakefield’s medical license was withdrawn because he had “abused his position of trust” and “brought the medical profession into disrepute.” The American Academy of Paediatrics has released a list of more than 40 studies showing no link whatsoever between vaccines and autism.
It is ironic that part of the autism scare is distrust of Big Pharma but Wakefield took large sums of money to falsify his research. There are others making big money out of fear. In 2011, Dr Joseph Mercola donated one million dollars to a number of organizations that oppose vaccination. He heads the Mercola Natural Health Center in Chicago and offers information on his website about the dangers of water fluoridation and metal amalgam in dental fillings, as well as speculation that HIV does not cause AIDS. The site gets two million hits a month and products available for purchase range from tanning beds to air purifiers to vitamins and supplements. The website and Mercola LLC generated an estimated $7 million in 2010.

Herd Immunity

Why cannot vaccination be a matter of individual choice? When large percentages of a population have become immune to an infectious disease, this provides a measure of protection for individuals who are not immune. Once a certain threshold has been reached, herd immunity or community immunity will gradually eliminate a disease from a population. Herd immunity also exerts an evolutionary pressure on certain microorganisms. Opposition to vaccination has posed a challenge to achieving herd immunity in certain populations, allowing diseases to persist in communities that have inadequate vaccination rates. Parents who fail to vaccinate their children may be jeopardizing the health of other children who are unable to be vaccinated. When the number of unvaccinated children rises above a certain threshold, “herd immunity” is compromised.

Legal Compulsion

Some legal experts believe that parents who do not vaccinate their children should be subject to criminal prosecution (including criminally negligent homicide and monetary damages) if their unvaccinated children infect and harm other children.

The highest vaccination rate in the US is in Mississippi, a state with an otherwise dismal set of health statistics. It allows people to opt out of vaccines only for medical reasons—not for religious or personal ones. States that make it easier not to vaccinate have higher rates of infectious diseases.

Conclusion

I shared some articles written by others on Facebook condemning those who endanger lives by opposing vaccination. One of my Facebook friends said that his nephew suffered irreversible brain damage after vaccination. I had no answer to that. I could not argue that there must have been some other cause.  The family who suffer that kind of grief will not be receptive to arguments about herd immunity.

In her book On Immunity Eula Biss tries to reconcile her divided feelings, fearing both infection and the imagined risks of vaccination: “On the pro-vaccine side … is a tendency to accuse people who are wary of vaccination of being stupid and not understanding science … most of them actually are in my demographic:  well-educated people with advanced degrees, who are upper middle-class and have read quite a bit on the subject… I think if we’re really concerned about stopping falling vaccination rates, we also need to be concerned about the actual reasons why those rates are falling, and not just write it off to stupidity.”

The debate is often conducted stridently on both sides. We need to sympathise with people’s genuine fears that vaccines might be harmful to their own children. Try telling a mother that she should accept the risk of her own child dying in order that thousands might live. What mother sees her child as a mere component of “the herd”? At that same time, we need to look at the research calmly and resist the propagation of myths.

 

 

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