So I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair

June 28th, 2011

When does a child become an adult? Opening a bank account. Your first pay cheque. Taking an interest in the news. Dealing with hangovers. Losing your virginity. Instinctively shaking hands with people you don’t know. Some are more obvious, such as moving out of the family home or getting married.

No matter how much we would like to believe that the transition is a smooth, simple affair, it is not. Some people move from childhood to full-blown early-to-bed must-open-a-pension-plan adults in a very short period of time, perhaps just a couple of years. Others drag it out over a decade or longer, afraid of the ceaselessness of ticking clocks, physically developing in one direction while psychologically staying put or even going backwards.

A little under two years ago I came back from a three-month stint working in Ghana for the Ghanaian Times. About a week after I returned, my mother said to me, with a mixture of melancholy and pride, “you’ve come back a man.” I didn’t know whether to say ‘sorry’ or ‘thank you’, or (as the wise philosopher Ronan Keating said) nothing at all. I had made no effort to consciously act more manly, but three months in West Africa would certainly develop even the most immature being.

It has now become clear to me, however, that the metamorphosis from child to adult ought not to be counted out with weighty actions such as marriage or jobs. Rather, it should be assessed in a more nuanced way by one’s evolving priorities.

It was last week, and a couple of years after my mother’s wistful words, that it occurred to me that yes, I am now a man. It only took 25 years. I did something that only an adult could do: I bought a piece of furniture. I got the sofa-bed not because I needed it, but because I thought my apartment needed a bit of jazzing up. That, and the fact that I can now offer overnight guests somewhere quasi-comfortable to sleep.

I built the flat-pack sofa and parked it in the corner of my room. Sweating after cursing for over an hour at nuts, bolts and pillows, I stepped back to look at my not-so handy work. It was only then, after the process of deciding I needed some more furniture, buying it, and building it, that I realised adulthood is now the only game in town. Next to the new sofa on the floor was a football, so at least I knew I had not rejected my passions from childhood.

Moving from childhood to adult life is therefore not a zero-sum game, where every stone added on one of the scales equally tips the balance on the other side. Instead, it is a process that we as humans don’t really understand until it is done; more importantly, every little gradated step on the one-way road towards proving one’s mortality need not be a rejection of childlike behaviour. I know plenty of more aged adults than me for whom brief, controlled escapades into childlike behaviour are a form of proof of adulthood. It seems that the only way to stay sane in advancing years is to sometimes act slightly insane, and every sofa bought must be balanced by a sofa jumped upon. Otherwise, that one-way road is travelled with tinted windows.

On Ottawa (and Canada)

June 24th, 2011

Ottawa is a city shrouded in myth, but for me two stand out in particular.

The first is that it is no fun. When I said to some friends and acquaintances in Montreal that I was heading two hours east to Canada’s capital city, they sniggered. ‘Ottawa?’ they said, ‘why would you go to Ottawa?’ It was as if we were ten years old and I had just told them that I do ballet or have a stamp collection. If Ottawa could speak, she might well say ‘my reputation precedes me.’ So why did I go? Because I had never been; and that, believe it or not, is as good a reason as any to go anywhere.

While Toronto and Montreal have agitated to become Canada’s cultural capital, economic capital, sporting capital, musical capital, media capital and, not to forget, actual capital, Ottawa has straddled the two metropolises with humble glee. While Toronto and Montreal argued like two school kids over whose Dad has a bigger car, Ottawa and her citizens got along just fine.

In that respect, the city is quintessentially Canadian, performing in a domestic context the role that Canada has traditionally played internationally. Anglo-Irish journalist and provocateur-in-chief Kevin Myers once wrote of Canada’s role in world affairs as ‘the perpetual wallflower that stands on the edge of the hall, waiting for someone to come and ask her for a dance.’ Ottawa’s role within Canada is much the same; the capital is a slight detour to the north from the main Toronto-Montreal route, just as Canada is a slight detour to the north from the main US-Europe routes. Both easily missed, both blithely dismissed.

Ottawa is fun, as much fun for the political anorak as for fans of hip hop or electro nightclubs. Much of the city’s nightlife is contained within the refreshingly low-rise Byward Market area, situated beside the Rideau Canal. On Tuesday evening, I watched the sun set over Gatineau, Quebec from a bridge connecting Rideau St and Wellington St (possibly soon to be Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard). Below the bridge were the final seven or eight locks of the canal as it prepared to enter the river. I have always considered the construction of canals among the more underrated achievements of humanity, and the merging of sheer natural beauty with human triumph and endevour became a sort of microcosm of Canada itself.

A couple of minutes up the road stands Parliament Hill, and it is on that Hill, where Canada’s federal House of Commons and Senate meet, that the second of the myths mentioned in the opening gambits of this piece resides. As mentioned before on this page, the idea that Queen Victoria herself chose Ottawa as the nation’s capital in 1857 is one that rankles, mainly because it is almost completely untrue. I say ‘almost’ because the monarch did rubber stamp the arrangement, so to speak, but it was Macdonald, Cartier and other fathers of Confederation who decided that the small lumber town would become home to the government of Canada.

Shawni is a tour guide from New Brunswick. Towards the end of our tour, we entered a hall where portraits hang of all monarchs who have reigned from Victoria forth. Shawni mentioned the Victoria-Ottawa myth as historical fact, much to the salient satisfaction of two women from Liverpool who became instantly proud over what they believed to be true. In deference to Shawni, she is likely to know far more about Canadian history than me, but this is one thing that most historians now accept as a sort of quasi-myth. I did not want to spoil the Liverpudlians’ fun or embarrass Shawni, so I bit my bitter Irish tongue. She later told me in private that she is told from above what to say.

My brief trip was rounded off by attending Question Period in the public gallery of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and his front bench faced the Speaker always while speaking – a strange, quirky tactic – while opposition MPs directed their vexed irritations directly at their intended targets. The main topic of discussion was the continuing Canada Post lockout, with the NDP predictably backing Canada Post workers and the Conservatives the small- and medium-sized businesses they say make Canada’s economy tick. French and English mixed, sometimes in mid-flow, from those comfortable in both official national languages. This, apparently, is what goes on in Canada’s Parliament.

Ottawa, a city that constantly seems to have to justify its own existence, offers much more than what its reputation suggests. If Canada is the country the world forgot, then Ottawa is the city the country forgets. The slight northern detour is well worth it, and the same goes for Canada at large.

The Vancouver Riots

June 17th, 2011

Last night witnessed rioting in downtown Vancouver — admittedly, a city far away from where I write — following that city’s hockey team’s loss to Boston in the final game of the Stanley Cup final. The last time that Vancouver lost the final game of the Stanley Cup series was in 1994, whereupon the city centre was also ravaged with rioting. In the interim, the city has successfully hosted a winter Olympic games in peace. So, a few questions:

The Mayor and Police force have blamed “hooligans and hoodlums” for the events. Why?

The predictable answer might well be that this is because hooligans and hoodlums — whatever, whoever and whoever they may be – are to blame. The advantage of this for the municipal administration is that it absolves them of almost all blame, and the hidden premise is that it was not hockey fans who engaged in rioting, but rather people masquerading (where would these people have been for 17 years then?). Thus, the city and its team cannot be to blame in any way. Today’s powerful and bold Globe and Mail editorial, however, smashes that myth to pieces. It is extremely obvious that there were more than a handful of people rioting, looting and committing arson, and many of those who were not were glad to goad them on. Would “hooligans and hoodlums” break into a verse of O Canada while rioting? Many if not most of those responsible seem to have been Vancouver Canucks fans — real ones, with an emotional connection to the team. If municipal authorities want to pretend this is not the case, they become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

If the event was a “disgrace”, then whose disgrace was it?

Describing an event as a “disgrace”, as, for example, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae has done, gives it a certain human root. One cannot describe an earthquake or tsunami, for example, as a disgrace because they don’t have a human root. So, if it was a disgrace, then who was disgraceful? The rioters? The city of Vancouver? The people of Vancouver? The police? The Mayor? The sport of hockey? The great nation of Canada? All of the above? None of the above?

Conditions were created, or were allowed to create themselves, for this event to happen. The fact that Vancouver lost 4-0 on the night did not help. The deployment of a police force in the three figures to manage a group of people in the six figures may not have helped. So, who is the disgrace? It is too easy for people like Rae to assign blame in a monolithic, linear fashion solely upon those who committed the acts of violence. The reality is surely more nuanced than that.

Why are media outlets tripping over themselves to compare this with soccer?

Most Canadian newspapers have mentioned soccer at least once in their editorial coverage today, the underlying theme of which is that the beautiful game is a malign influence upon hockey and Canada. However, taking into consideration the amount of professional soccer played throughout the globe — which dwarfs the amount played of any other field sport — is attending a soccer game really than dangerous? Is this comparison not a bit cheap and beside the point?

Lastly, is this not a wonderful photograph?

This photo (story here) has gone viral today, and well it should.

Children at your feet

June 15th, 2011

Watch this. It’s a video of last night’s New Hampshire Republican pre-primary debate. The main battle seemed not to be over healthcare, the military, education, jobs or the economy, but over who was responsible for bringing more American children into the world. Michelle Bachmann thought she had won with 28 — five to which she had given birth plus 23 fostered — until Ron Paul came in with over 4,000. It’s a truly bizarre debate.

FIFA the Banana Republic

June 9th, 2011

What are the main principles of a banana republic? Ownership of a state ought to be one taken as a given, another perhaps being that the state ought to have a currency which is an international laughingstock. These principles would automatically disqualify FIFA, the international governing body of association football . . . or would they? FIFA, of course, is not a state, but rather a part-stakeholder and sometime benefactor of 208 states. That’s more than the United Nations. And currency? Currency itself is the commodity that FIFA trades – the bananas, if you will – previously in an indiscreet way, but now in such a brazenly open fashion that it makes a mockery of those people who ultimately fund the organisation: the fans.

But the chief principle of banana-ism is surely kleptocracy, whereby those in positions of power and influence use their time in office to maximize their own gains, always ensuring that any shortfall is made up by those unfortunates whose daily life involves earning money rather than making it, once again: the fans.

The ‘Republic’ makes sure that the trappings of accountability and democracy are left intact. In FIFA, a President, elected by a Congress, is joined by a General Secretary. This seems accountable, democratic, and almost state-like, but let’s look a little deeper at the structure. The Congress meets in ordinary assembly once a year, though extraordinary sessions may be called by the President, who also chairs what is called the Executive Committee, a sort of Cabinet to the Congress, and that Committee forms the main decision-making body. Thus, the overall structure is very much top-down from the President and not bottom-up from the Congress (let alone the fans or players themselves). The one principle that must not operate is accountability.

A case in point is the reigning President, Sepp Blatter, who was recently elected unopposed for the fourth time since first taking up the role in 1998. It’s the sort of record that Mugabe, Nguema , or Lukashenko might be proud of. In the most recent vote held last week, Mohammed bin Hammam, who played a key role in securing the 2022 World Cup for Qatar, withdrew as a candidate after being accused of bribing 25 FIFA officials to vote for his candidacy. Soon after, FIFA suspended bin Hammam and its own Vice-President Jack Warner from all involvement in the game. Remember: the structure within FIFA means that not a lot can happen within without the President’s blessing. Blatter then had a free ride to victory.

So, did Qatar buy its right to host the 2022 tournament? Is FIFA selling the right to host events as well as positions within its own structure? Secretary General Jerome Valcke issued a statement denying it was bribery that brought about the astounding result, but rather that the country had merely “used its financial muscle to lobby for support.” And so FIFA is now establishing its own lexicon of euphemisms.

Banana Republics do not open themselves up to any sort of external auditing, for the obvious reason that the numbers would not add up and heads would inevitably have to roll. However, and probably in an attempt to maintain or establish a veneer of accountability, they are often wont to some form of voluntary regulation. This is, if not always then more often than not, fundamentally flawed from the beginning because the institution being regulated can opt in or out of supervision. The fact that FIFA has now established such a body diminishes the perceived mandate of the program and weakens its effectiveness.

Heads will not roll, corruption will continue, and something is rotten in the state of association football. A money class creates and then fleeces the system while the very trunk of the game is permitted to rot. Mix that with kleptocracy and the sale of central positions and bang! You’re a banana republic.

My hero, Romeo Dallaire

June 3rd, 2011

I have recently finished watching a superb documentary, ‘Ghosts of Rwanda’, about that nation’s repulsive genocide of 1994. In recent years, the US government — as well as those of Britain and France, among others — has publicly declared its regret that more was not done to prevent the attempted eradication of the Tutsis or reduce the human loss. The UN and its Secretary-General of the time, Kofi Annan, have made similar remarks.

Kofi Annan is from Ghana, a country that I have worked in and is very dear to me, and the UN’s spectacular ineptitude during the mass killings — including reducing their force when General Romeo Dallaire asked for backup — does not reflect well on the organisation or Annan.

However, I learned something new from the documentary. While other countries – including the US which, under the Clinton administration, was loathe to enter Africa after the Somalia debacle of 1992 and publicly stated so — were commiting to not providing troops for the UN mission, the two main countries that did stick around and provide the lion’s share of troops were Ghana and Canada. (This is discussed in part 6 of the above link, from around 4.00 to 6.00).

Dallaire, the beleagured Canadian General in charge of the UN mission, states that he said to Ghanaian General Henry Kwami Anyidoho, ”Henry, they want us out. We’ve failed in the mission. We’ve failed in attempting to convince… We’ve failed the Rwandans. We are going to run and cut the losses; that’s what they want us to do.” ‘They’ in this sentence can only be construed as the UN people at headquarters in New York.

Anyidoho said No.

“We haven’t failed, and as commanders we are going to sit here, work hard and see to its solution. So let’s tell those people back in New York that we do not think the mission should be closed.”

800,000 people are thought to have died in 100 days of genocide in an area smaller than the US state of Maryland – targeted killings without mercy in an attempt to wipe out Tutsis. The UN force, under Canadian command with a large chunk of Ghanaian troops, have been widely credited with keeping that number below the million mark.

While other governments, Western and African, were running away from Rwanda as genocide was beginning, it is no surprise to me, having lived and worked in both, that the two Generals who decided to stay were from Ghana and Canada, respectively.

And the relationship extends into our present millenium. When the Vancouver Canucks made it into the Stanley Cup Final last week — that’s the final of the (Ice) Hockey season, for your information — these Ghanaian children gave their support to Canada’s team.

Beautiful. Honest. Relevant.