Sunday, June 13, 2010

Favourite World Cup moments so far

My two favourite moments from Cape Town so far came not at the France v Uruguay game, which was a turgid affair with little atmosphere – due in no small part to the vuvuzelas drowning out singing and the lack of foreign fans. They came out on the streets.

Cape Town's Fan Fest was full from early in the morning on Friday, so come kick-off thousands of fans were milling around outside. They surrounded the fence, many of them climbing up onto trees to catch a glimpse of South Africa on the big screen, which was framed by the imposing table mountain. One enterprising fan climbed up onto the concrete roof of the neighbouring bus station, egged on by the rowdy crowd below, who were honking their infernal horns furiously. Three policemen clambered atop a fire engine to talk him down. Their efforts quickly became half-hearted, then non-existent, when they realised they could watch the game from their vantage point.

On Saturday evening, I went down to the V&A Waterfront to watch the England v USA game in the Dubliner bar, where I met a lovely American couple, Jamie Marie and Stephen Turner, who were watching the game with their 16-month-old son.

As we chatted at half-time, a pissed-up, fat, sweaty female English fan, wearing a nasty muffin top, heaved herself up onto one of the round tables. She was part of a group of equally fat and drunk men, whose face paint was running – together they looked like a group of paedophile clowns. They had earlier been lambasting a bunch of US kids draped in flags, who seemed bewildered by the wide repertoire of songs at the command of the English fans. The kids could only respond with chants of “U-S-A”, to which the English replied: “You've only got one chant.”

Upon seeing the drunken English fan gyrating seedily and wobbling perilously close to the edge of the table, a clean-cut young American girl – they were all clean-cut, with nice teeth and good skin – took to her table. While she was far prettier and slimmer, she was clearly far more uncomfortable – and sober – than her competitor. She shuffled around awkwardly as the steamer peeled off her jersey and did the bump-and-grind. The English fan probably would have taken more clothes off as the whole bar cheered, but the show ended before it could escalate to pale, flabby nudity. The US girl leapt off, fully-clothed and clearly relieved.

The game may have ended 1-1, but is was clearly 1-0 to the English fans.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Things I love about Kenya 4 – racist dance troupes

They are Kenya's answer to the Black and White Minstrel Show, an act so incredibly racist that white people probably should take offense. But they are also very, very funny.

I'm talking about certain dancers who dress up as old colonials. They wear khaki safari shorts, shirts and hats. White socks sprout out from tackety boots and climb up to knobbly knees. Huge fake bellies swell their shirts to the verge of button-popping. Their faces are painted with big white beards. Their dance is all slapstick: they blow whistles, twirl canes, fall over, kick each other in the ass, stamp around with a bandy-legged gait.

The first time I saw the act was in Visa Place, as we were waiting for the incredibly vulgar guitarist Mike Rua to come on and play what was essentially the same song for the rest of the evening (nothing wrong with that, of course – Galaxie 500 made a career out of playing one song in 30 different ways). We were the only white folks in the packed, sweaty bar, which stank of the grilled chicken, goat and beer just consumed.

When the dancers started their routine, people went crazy: pissing themselves laughing, slapping their thighs, the whole bit. It was highly entertaining, but I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had we been in Western Europe and the dancers had been white men blacked-up and dressed in the Western idea of traditional African garb. They would have been booed off the stage. In Visa Place, people just kept glancing at us and laughing even more. Such behaviour is so un-PC in the UK that in a recent theatrical production about Al Jolson's life, they did not show him blacked-up to avoid causing offence.

That's one of the funny things about Kenya. It is perfectly acceptable to work on a whole set of assumptions about all white people – essentially, to be racist.

I've had many conversations with Kenyans, during which I told them some things about my own culture that were surprising to them. In the interests of promoting cultural understanding, I'd like to clear up a few myths:

1. There are poor white people and white criminals, although we have essentially moved all of them to one city, Glasgow, where hopefully they will fall on each other like the rabid dogs they are and perish (although we tried this a long time ago, and the end result was Australia).

2. We can dance. Shuffling from side-to-side, out of time to the music, arms flopping around: this counts as dancing, doesn't it?

3. White people can actually wash a dish, pick up their dirty clothes, carry a shopping bag - although admittedly you don't see much evidence of that in Nairobi.

4. Not every white person is a complete mug who will gaily splash money around. Some of us are Scottish.

5. Yes, we do have enormous penises (this may be a rumour I am trying to spread myself).

I could go on. And I usually do. But on this occasion I won't. So there.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Things I love about Kenya 3 – nobody understands me

On the face of it, being completely incomprehensible to the people of the country you live in is a bad thing. But it can also be useful, and fun.

If I want to be understood, I can easily speak slowly and clearly. But if I revert to my normal speed and pronunciation, which is understandable only to anyone who lives within a 40-mile radius of Glasgow, I can say whatever I like. This is handy if you are having a frustrating encounter. You can call the person you are talking to all the names under the sun, while smiling sweetly, and they are none the wiser.

Kenyan guards in particular have a habit of nodding their heads and responding “yah” to anything I say.

When I roll up to a gate, I often shake the guard's hand, smile and say: “I'm going to see x and y to steal everything from their apartment. Is that ok?”

Or: “I'm planning on beating everyone in the compound to death, and then burning down the apartment block. Are you fine with that?”

The guards invariably nod and wave me in.

Part of the reason for this is that security guards, upon seeing a white face, will let you into virtually any compound in town. This seems to stem from an assumption that white people won't steal anything.

WRONG!

I am from Glasgow. Everywhere else in the world, they assume I will steal everything.

I honestly believe a gang of white criminals could clean up in Nairobi before anybody actually realised that wazungu were blagging things. You could drive up to an ATM with a JCB and dig it out of the wall, make up some bullshit story about taking it for repairs, and then drive off unmolested. When the witnesses said the gang was white, the cops would shake their heads in disbelief and assume it was the Mungiki in disguise. Even when white folk are caught killing people, like a certain landed gent descended from British aristocracy was (twice), they get off with it.

Okay, I am now very off topic. But that's okay. Just imagine I've said all the above in a Glaswegian accent, and you can hear whatever you want to hear anyway.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Things I love about Kenya 2 - the slow-motion run

You're driving (again), weaving through traffic, looking for a gap to squeeze through to undertake the doddery old mhindi guy clutching the wheel of a shit-brown, black-fume-belching Peugeot 306. At last a space opens up and you accelerate toward it as fast as possible, since you've been holding your breath for the last two minutes and are about to pass out.

Then you notice a pedestrian sauntering across, checking his mobile phone or just staring into space. You honk your horn, and he sees you. But instead of hurrying to avoid being splattered all over your bonnet, he launches into the slow-motion run.

There are two versions of the run: in the first, the pedestrian lifts his knees high into the air like a footballer warming up and simultaneously throws his fists up toward the sky, giving you an intense look that says: “See, I'm moving fast.” The second, and rarer, version of the run is even more bizarre: the pedestrian leans forward, holds arms and legs rigidly straight, and scissors both sets of limbs, like a vaudeville performer exiting stage left.

To the uninitiated, it is unclear what is happening. Is he doing a dance? Having a fit? Being attacked by wasps? Ah, no. He's running. Very. Very. Slowly.

Both versions of the run are slower than the stroll, so you slam on your brakes and screech to a halt. Unfazed by the fact he nearly did a somersault over your bumper and ended up with his face embedded in your windshield, the pedestrian continues his slow-motion run to the pavement/gutter/dirt verge.

There, he accelerates to walking pace.

I think this is why there are no successful Kenyan sprinters. The fastest time clocked for the 100 metres would be 5 minutes 33 seconds.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Things I love about Kenya 1 – Everyone is a traffic cop

You are stuck at a junction in Nairobi – an all too-common occurrence in a city where everybody drives as though they have metal spikes bristling from their wheel rims and a turbo-boost button hidden under the dashboard.

Maybe it has been raining, and a matatu (commuter minibus) that tried to undertake on the muddy verge has overturned and is blocking half the road. Perhaps there has been a prang and the car owners are leaning on their bonnets, patiently waiting for the police to arrive. More likely, eight drivers have simultaneously decided they have right of way and are now snuggled up tightly in the middle of the junction, all staring at each other.

There isn't a cop in sight, you have a meeting in 15 minutes and you're wondering if it would be quicker to abandon your car and walk to your destination, all the while cursing the city.

Then, out of nowhere, a citizen traffic cop appears. The self-appointed traffic director beckons and waves, prods and slaps at bonnets, brandishes a newspaper, has a screaming match with a driver, stops to pick his or her nose (unless that too is a signal). Slowly, the traffic begins to move, and you are free. At least until the next junction.

Behind you, the traffic cop blends back into the crowd, seeking no reward. Nobody really knows who this person is: a matatu tout, a security guard, a garage attendant, a cleaner, a teacher. But it is irrelevant.

All that matters is that they are out there. And they are ready.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ghost writing an ethical folk-pop-rock biography

I have agreed to take on a rather peculiar job ghost-writing the biography for what I think is the only ethical folk-pop-rock duo in the world, Quentin and Crisp.

Rather than tell you about it, since it is my job to step into the shadows, I will allow Tobias Crisp, one half of the badly dressed act, tell you about it in his own words:

Dear friends in ethical folk-pop-rock,

Has it really been almost three years since we last spoke? It seems it has. I can only issue sincere apologies from Quentin and myself, and simultaneously provide you with wonderful news.

So much has happened, that I cannot tell you it all at once. Suffice to say that Quentin and I are tragically torn apart for the moment, stuck in separate continents due to a quirk of fate. I am living in Nairobi, where I am trying to get my ethical SANSOCK factory off the ground in the slums of Kibera, and also looking for funding for my new product, REFUCHEESE (It's cheese. Made by refugees.)

If you are a donor, please send me your email address and I will give you my bank details. Minimum donation of 50 thousand euros please. Alternatively, you may send an attractive movie star or pop singer down for a fund-raising jamboree. If at all possible, send Kylie Minogue. She is welcome to stay in my humble abode. I do only have one bed, but I am sure we can make do somehow. I am open to other beautiful young ladies, but please don't send that Lady GaGa. She would snap me in two like a twig. I'm not even sure she is a lady and, despite the rumours, I emphatically state here and now that I do not worship in the Church of Man Love.

Anyway, I digress.

Poor old Quentin is still in the commune, where he has been in a full body cast ever since he tried to use his conflict resolution skills to prevent a few dozen young Hungarian men, who despite their lovely embroidered waistcoats were quite appallingly right wing, from attacking a Roma village in the east of Hungary in January. I will spare you the details, other than to say the hospital staff had to fish his left testicle out of a Magpie's nest before they could re-attach it.

But enough grumping. To the good news.

As you know, Q&C have led action-packed lives, full of highs and lows, peaks and troughs, ducks and dives. Now, at long last, our lives are to be chronicled in book format. In a few weeks time, I will sit down with Michael Logan, a journalist of my acquaintance and ghost writer of the renowned biographies Small Legs, Big Heart (the story of Peter Watwicky, who gave up his stable job as a circus midget to pursue his dream of winning Olympic Gold in the high jump) and Kiddy Fiddler (the tale of Jack McBart, who overcame a horrendous background of child abuse to become the youngest ever lead violin in the Dunstable Symphony Orchestra). With such illustrious titles to his name, I just know he can do our life story justice.

Keep your eyes open for updates on how we are progressing and please help keep the ethical folk-pop-rock alive until Quentin is recovered by encouraging your friends to download our hit singles, Socks and Sandals and What Ails You World? from our MySpace page.

Yours in ethical folk-pop-rock,
Tobias Crisp.

If you want to follow the updates to the writing process, you can follow Crisp's blog at:

http://quentinandcrisp.livejournal.com/

Hear their songs at:

http://www.myspace.com/quentinandcrisp

And watch videos of them in action at:

http://www.youtube.com/user/quentinandcrisp

Cheers,
Michael.

PS I do know that Crisp bears a remarkable resemblance to me, but let me assure you that since I am also told I look like Paul Scholes, Simon Pegg, Jimmy Somerville and just about any other gingernut out there, this similarity is down to my chameleon-like appearance. We are not the same person.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Apologies

I'd like to apologise for my last post. I was having a strange day. I don't really hanker after large hats.

Thank you.

Friday, March 26, 2010

How to end piracy off Somalia

I have just simultaneously solved the problems of piracy off Somalia and carjacking in Nairobi. I give you Protection Rackets!

Back in the day, criminals would at least have the decency to allow you the chance to pay them off before trashing your deli with a baseball bat and garotting you with a strand of undercooked spaghetti. I think it is time to return to such old-fashioned values.

Starting Monday, because I didn't sleep well last night and am a bit tired, I am going to marshall all the Somali pirates under my command.

The deal is simple: I will be chief pirate, with a hat that's way too large and elaborate for my head (a bit like this one, only bigger), a dog called Raffles that I have trained to smell out treachery among my minions and a cutlass I sharpen on knife block clamped between the teeth of the severed head of the lead singer from Coldplay.

Shipping companies will pay me protection money and I will share it with my gang, obviously minus a big slice for myself, which I will use to fund even more elaborate hats until the day I get too adventurous and my neck snaps like a twig under the weight of my most-daring creation yet.

The annual fee will be less than the cost of hiring private armed guards and the increased cost of insurance. Ships will be unmolested, so the companies will be happy. My gang and I won't even have to get out of bed in the morning to collect our wages, never mind go out onto the ocean in a tiny boat, running the risk of being shot, arrested, knocked over by a big wave or accidentally sailing off the edge of the world. So we'll be happy.

Any freelance pirates who try to hijack ships will be pulled to the bottom of the sea by an enraged giant octopus, one of an army I will train to roam the sea enforcing my will. Ships whose owners do not pay the annual fee will be dealt with similarly.

Even the journalists will be happy, because they won't have to write the same bloody pirate story almost every single day of their lives for all eternity, as they do now.

Once this is running smoothly, I will branch out to Nairobi, where pale expats scuttle from mall to mall, windows tightly wound up, in deadly fear of any black man that approaches their car. ("Is that a carjacker, Astrid?" "No, I think it's just a hawker, but call the diplomatic police to come and shoot him anyway!")

All carjackers will be invited to join my gang. Any motorist who pays the protection fee will get a scale model of my giant and elaborate pirate hat to perch atop their bonnet. This will render them immune to carjacking. Everybody else is still fair game. Any cop that shoots one of my carjackers will be dragged to the bottom of the ocean by an enraged...hang on, that doesn't work on land. I'll just bribe them not to shoot my employees.

Once I've had a nap, I plan to also come up with innovative solutions for other long-term problems, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, international terrorism and Amy Winehouse's smack habit.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Angry mobs in Kenya

Sometimes I love Kenya, a country where an angry mob can form at any second for no other reason than it is fun to wave a ripped-off tree branch at the cops or form a roadblock from stones and burning tyres.

I was heading back from a city centre press conference this morning to catch a bus at the big stop near the GPO when I heard the unmistakable rumble of a mob voice. I couldn't really see what the commotion was about, as the usual massive crowd of wananchi had formed to stare, laugh and slap their thighs merrily. I was thinking maybe a thief, anti-government protest, possible some internally displaced demanding their rights.

Then a tow truck emerged from the crowd, pulling your typical Kenyan taxi driver white saloon car behind it. Pursuing the truck, armed with big sticks, were about 30 blokes, some of them in suits, screaming and shouting and trying to stop the towing. The cops were waving their big sticks back - fortunately none of the coppers had a gun, or there would have been shots fired. Off they went up the road, the angry mob chasing the car, the cops backing off in front of them, and the wananchi, literally hundreds of them, all pissing themselves laughing.

I don't know if they got the car back, but I was thinking it is exactly thist kind of thing I will miss when I eventually leave Kenya. I would love to see a mob of motorists chasing a traffic warden or tow truck up the street in the UK, but I don't see it happening.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Coldplay and Kenyan "rock" bands

We were at a battle of the bands in Qatika t'other week, and I heard at least four Coldplay cover versions. There may have been more, but after the fourth song I stuck knitting needles through my ear drums and was bleeding in blissful silence in the corner.

Kenyan rock bands: Coldplay are fucking turgid. Stop doing cover versions of their dull, whiny songs. There are many other great bands out there you can cover. If you want to do whiny, at least cover some Radiohead songs - they do it with style and musical excellence.

Kenyan rock fans: Coldplay don't even qualify as rock, so stop giving it the sign of the horns when bands are playing their meandering, tuneless dirges. You may as well headbang to Celine Dion. You have permission to give the horns only when you hear bands such as Led Zep, Black Sabbath, AC/DC.

Coldplay: Just stop. Please. You're setting a bad example to impressionable Kenyan youngsters.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

How to be earnest

I may seem a little out of the loop here, but I just saw the video for We are the World 25 for Haiti for the first time, and there is one word to describe it: hysterical.


And I don't just mean it's funny, which it is in a cringing, am-I-really-watching-this manner. It also aptly describes the singing, as each star tries to outdo the others to show how much they care by launching into vocal histrionics.

Michael Jackson must be turning in his grave, and saying “ow!”.

But that isn't the funniest part. Apparently, the best way to demonstrate you care for Haiti's orphans is to earnestly pucker your face while clenching your fist poignantly. Some of the stars are puckering so hard I was worried they might create a black hole, sucking themselves into oblivion through their own nostrils and taking Lionel Richie with them (Hurray! I hear you shout).

Next time, just give money people. You can afford it. We'll just assume you care. A lot.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

It's clobbering time

This Taiwanese news report brings to life those Bullygate moments when mild-mannered Gordon Brown, irked by his employees, transforms into a raging monster:

http://whitehall1212.blogspot.com/2010/02/bullygate-taiwan-style.html

Old Gordon must have been pumping iron, judging by the way he pulls the typist off her desk and flings her across the room.

At least we now know who will play him in any forthcoming biopic: Jean Claude Van Damme anyone?

Ugandan death penalty petition

I received a well-intentioned request from the campaigners at http://www.avaaz.org/ to donate money to a rights' group that wishes to run an opinion poll about proposed tougher anti-gay legislation in Uganda. They believe the opinion poll will show Ugandans do not back the bill, which calls for the death penalty in cases of "aggravated homosexuality" - having gay sex while HIV positive, with a minor or a disabled person. Belief in human rights will overpower homophobia, they reason.

Sorry Avaaz, but I think you are underestimating the virulence of homophobia in not only Uganda, but the rest of East Africa. I have spoken to pleasant, reasonable, ordinary Ugandans who believe gays are an abomination and think the law is fine. When the president of The Gambia threatened to behead gays a while back, it was a Ugandan who said he was quite right. In neighbouring Kenya, a mob in Mtwapa recently had to be stopped from setting fire to a man they believed to be gay. The mob was rampaging around after a gay wedding was stopped. There are countless examples of such widespread hatred.

These people are not extremists, in the sense that they are a small minority with views different from the rest of their society. They are ordinary citizens with attitudes that have been drummed into them by religion. So I am struggling to understand where this idea that Ugandans do not support the bill is coming from.

I personally believe the bill will not be passed in its current form, simply because of the amount of international pressure being applied. President Museveni has already tried to distance himself from the bill and called it a "foreign policy issue" after having his ear bent by Gordon Brown and Hillary Rodham Clinton, amongst other world leaders.

Museveni doesn't care what Avaaz or a handful of Ugandan human rights' activists think. But with the threat of cuts to international aid hanging over Uganda's head - Sweden has said it will cut off aid if the bill becomes law - the nation can't afford to pass this legislation.

The real fight shouldn't be against the bill. It should be against Uganda's exisiting legislation, which is already draconian. Even if the bill is stopped, Ugandan gays still find themselves living in a country where their sexual preference is criminalised and they face discrimination and violence. That is something that isn't going to change any time soon.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Journalism and body counts

I found out on Saturday that a very close friend of mine, Kristian Kramer, died last week, aged 37. He was genuinely an amazing guy who was trying to save other skiers following an avalanche in Switzerland, only to be swept away by a second avalanche.

His ex-girlfriend told me, and gave me links to some stories on the BBC about the avalanche. As I read the stories, I was struck by the gap between how devastated I felt and the cold relating of the facts. Then I realised how many stories I have written about people dying in their dozens and the emotional disconnect in those stories. I have done it so many time I am no longer upset by these stories and do not consider the human cost.

Now, after having the human cost brought home to me, I'm not sure if I want to be a journalist any longer, or at least not the kind of journalist that writes these impersonal stories.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Meet my new guitar

Meet my new guitar. Come, let us worship.