Although this blog's name is inspired by Sauti Kubwa ("Big Voice"), the late lead singer of Rumba Japan, a band that played in Nairobi in the early years of this century, it won't focus unduly on Swahili nicknames, rumba music or indeed any other African issues.


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Roll of Shame (2)

I saw a subsequent report that Colombia, the Philippines, Serbia and Ukraine later accepted their invitations. Good show, as all of them are democracies of a sort.

Against that, Algeria and the Palestinian Authority have to be added to the roll of shame as they declined their invitations.

For the record, the roll of shame is therefore: Afghanistan, Algeria, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Venezuela, Vietnam and the Palestinian Authority.

One judges a country by its friends.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Roll of Shame

The diplomatic envoys of the following countries have refused invitations to attend the award ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on 10 December:

Afghanistan, Colombia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine, Venezuela, Vietnam.

One judges a country by its friends.

I'm pleased to say that although two BRIC countries are on the above list, the other two - Brazil and India - are on the roll of honour of 44 nations that have accepted their invitations.

(Only those countries with diplomats in Oslo are invited, so most of the world's states have not had to declare their stance one way or the other.)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Britain's top soldier says al-Qaeda cannot be beaten...

... is the headline of the lead story story in today's Sunday Telegraph.

The paper quotes General Sir David Richards as saying that defeating Islamist militancy was "unnecessary and would never be achieved".

There doesn't seem to be any question of General Richards having been misquoted by the paper. On the Andrew Marr Show this morning, he said the same thing about defeating the Taliban or al-Qaeda militarily: "You can't. We've all said this. David Petraeus has said it, I've said it."

Is he right? Who knows? But I bet his predecessor in, say, 1985, would have said much the same thing about Soviet communism.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


As we approach Remembrance Day, here's the Carrier Corps Memorial, Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi.

(Click on the picture to enlarge. The building on the right is the HQ of the Nation Media Group. The tower represents a giant roll of newsprint. Bottom right is the Cameo Cinema. Bottom left is the Bank of India building.)

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Pakistan and the Taliban - again

This - is - becoming - repetitive.

But I will continue...

A White House report says Pakistan is not doing enough to confront the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Captain Renault must therefore make another appearance in this blog.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


A message from a solicitor today referred to my "lady wife". Normally, I would regard such a phrase - especially coming from a professional man - as embarrassingly twee or excessively formal, and certainly insincere and therefore irritating.

But the solicitor is Asian and so I found it mildly touching. I like the way some other cultures have retained an easy and genuine formality that we have lost.

Some years ago, a Somali junior colleague would routinely address me as "sir". From a Brit, this would have been jocular, mocking, facetious or grovelling. But it wasn't any of those things. It certainly wasn't grovelling; I've never met a Somali who didn't have a quiet assurance and self-confidence that allowed them to deal with almost anyone as an equal.

The westernised sections of Kenyan society broadly follow a British standard in these matters; perhaps favouring a slightly more formal style, for example in the dress code for the business sector.

But in Ghana, I was flummoxed for a while as they seemed to have only two modes - extreme formality and uninhibited, exuberant informality - and the same individual could switch between the two states very easily and quickly.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Many congratulations to my wife!!

Many congratulations to my dear wife, Sauti Kali ("Fierce Voice")!

Today she passed the "Life in the UK Test".

Next step: indefinite leave to remain in the UK. And then, eventually, UK citizenship.

Hongera, sauti yangu! Nakupenda sana, maisha yangu.

And thanks to the efficient staff at the test centre in Maidenhead Library.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Congratulations to Ghana!!

As I've briefly mentioned before, Ghana is a country I know slightly and admire considerably.

Now comes reason for celebration: it's set to become the first country in Africa to halve poverty and hunger before 2015.

The key has been two-fold: concentrate on practical measures to help farmers, and have good overall governance.

Well done Ghana!

Celebrate with some traditional highlife music:

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Shoddy journalism from The Guardian

On 7 September, the Guardian reported - as its lead story - that, to quote the headline, "BBC World Service broadcasts in Burma face axe".

As it turned out, no they don't.

Several things about the report immediately struck me as odd. It quoted a "diplomatic source" as saying that the BBC Burmese service "is very expensive and has relatively few listeners. The 'human rights' argument doesn't hold much sway with the new Foreign Office."

Neither of those specific claims about the Burmese service is true, something that any half-decent Guardian journalist assigned to write the paper's top story that day should have been able to determine. The Burmese radio service is one of the World Service's more modest sections: on the air for less than two hours a day, compared to, say, the Chinese service (five hours a day) or Arabic (18 hours a day on radio, plus a separate TV channel) and with a suitably modest budget. And, as the article noted briefly later, the BBC has a Burmese audience of an impressive 8.5 million.

The following day, the Guardian ran a further story, headlined: "World Service will face budget cuts – but risk to BBC Burma is 'small'".

This said (my emphasis):

Hague told the Commons foreign affairs committee that he would soon be telling the World Service what he thought it could achieve as a "contribution" to the spending review. But he said the BBC Burma service "does not cost very much" and closing it "probably wouldn't be a very good way of saving money".

"Here am I as someone who in opposition has appeared on platforms with Burmese human rights activists, launched books with Burmese human rights activists and been on the World Service talking about Burma and the importance of communicating into it.
The chances that I'm then going to sit in my office and say, 'let's close the World Service into Burma' are correspondingly small."

So, the paper's story the previous day was nonsense. It was a lame attempt by someone to make a shroud-waving story out of nothing. They knew that Guardianistas would be horrified to think of the Burmese service being cut by the nasty Tories, so they built a story out of a quote from a "diplomatic source" - probably quite a junior FCO staffer who wanted to grind a personal axe and bad-mouth both the current government and the BBC. (Some FCO staff - not the whole organization - dislike the World Service simply because it's "not invented here" and resent the money spent on it from the FCO's budget.)

The Guardian and the "source" knew that the line about "The 'human rights' argument doesn't hold much sway with the new Foreign Office" would be another easy button to push to outrage the Guardianistas. But, for all I know, William Hague has done more for human rights in Burma than Robin Cook, Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett or David Miliband.

Here's the truth: speculation about which bits of the World Service will be cut are just that - speculation. We won't know for certain until after the formal announcement on 20 October of the whole government's spending review. Sure, some parts of the WS will be cut, and some parts more than others. Services, like the Burmese one, that deliver a big audience for a modest outlay, and meet an obvious need, have every chance of surviving with little or no cutback. Other areas, including some of Bush House's sacred cows, will likely get the chop.

Meanwhile, treat all Guardian stories about any public sector cuts as unreliable

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Cyril Smith

When I heard he'd died, I had that brief, disconcerting feeling you get when you learn such news of someone you hadn't thought had still been alive.

I think that's because he was a quintessentially 1970s figure (although he was an MP throughout the Thatcher years, not leaving the Commons until 1992).

He stood out as an authentic working-class Liberal.

He was also that other rare thing: a prominent politician with a Lancashire accent. Why aren't there more of them? (I mean genuine Lancastrian - not the subtly different Manchester.) The only other one I can think of was Rhodes Boyson.

Some odd conjunctions and non sequiturs in the BBC obituary:

despite being a Liberal, he... was firmly anti-establishment

while he was all for having a nuclear deterrent, he was strongly against unions having a closed-shop arrangement...

Thursday, 2 September 2010

William Hague's personal statement

I accept his statement. But I'm puzzled about why he was sharing hotel rooms (more than once) with Christopher Myers.

If someone's not a family member, and you're not planning to have sex with them, there are only two reasons to share a hotel room with them:

1. Necessity (only one room available at the inn). This sounds implausible. Someone of Hague's position has staff to plan and book his accommodation in advance, and to make alternative arrangements if need be.

2. Economy. Often a very good reason, but surely unlikely in this case. Even in the current age of austerity, we don't think it an unreasonable luxury for our politicians to have their own hotel room. And Hague is a very wealthy man - he could easily afford to pay for separate rooms for Myers and himself out of his own pocket.

Apart from propriety, there's also a very good reason for not sharing a hotel room. Even if you're used to sharing a bed (or a bedroom), you'll both almost certainly get a better night's rest on your own. Even twin beds don't eliminate snoring, talking in your sleep, tossing and turning, getting up to pee and other disturbances for the other person.

So, all rather odd.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Pakistani cricket

In today's FT, James Lamont and Farhan Bokhari say this about the Pakistan-cricket-and-betting-scandal:

The response to the latest apparent breach of the game’s rules will probably follow a pattern similar to Pakistan’s response to deadly terrorist attacks. There will be a hue and cry, promises of discipline and then nothing. The country, after all, has been unable to track down the killers of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, and the villains who made off on motorcycles after the daylight attack on the Sri Lankans in Lahore.

As I have observed more than once before, my usual expectations from Pakistan are of a Captain Renault-style response:

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Do you laugh or cry...

... when you see sloppy writing?

Reading this about events in my second homeland, this leapt out at me:

"canons broke into a 21-gun salute"

I wondered whether they were also wearing their clerical vestments.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Why British premierships fail

It's not a new idea - I remember Robert Harris mentioning it in the Sunday Times perhaps 20 years ago. It's the theory (paradox?) that British prime ministers are brought down by what was supposed to be their greatest strength.


Eden: huge foreign policy experience, Middle East expert, Persian and Arabic speaker - resigned following self-inflicted Suez crisis.

Wilson: brilliant academic economist, technocrat - remembered now for presiding over a notably stagnant and crisis-ridden period in British economic history.

Heath: A meritocrat from a modest background, seen as someone who could connect the Tories to a wider public - his premiership saw very poor industrial relations and even concerns that British democracy might collapse.

Thatcher: Ruthless Iron Lady, crusher of Galtieri and Scargill - laid low by the plotting of backbench non-entities.

Major: A moderate, a conciliator - his time in office was characterised by Conservative Party factionalism and infighting.

Blair: Darling of the bien-pensant classes - now reviled by them.

Brown: All-conquering clunking fist, supremely assured economic maestro - we know how it ended.

So, how will it end for Cameron? In other words, what's seen as his greatest strength?

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Cameron's travels (3)

A lot of hoo-haa (much of it misplaced in my opinion) has been generated by some of Cameron's remarks in Turkey and India.

His speech in Turkey generated considerable angst from various bloggers, including the down-to-earth Iain Dale, the excitable Melanie Philips (also here) and The Economist's reflective Bagehot.

I find it hard to get agitated one way or the other about Turkey. For as long as I can remember, it has been the "next big thing" that was set to arrive on the world stage, transforming relations between Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and between the West and the Islamic world. Ankara has never lived up to these expectations and the country always seems to punch below its weight. Why should it be any different now?

Turkey certainly filled a useful role during the Cold War on NATO's southern flank, and it continues to be a stabilising counterweight to other regional players (Iran, Syria, Russia). Perhaps we're best off leaving it as a semi-detached Western ally, rather than trying to give it more significance than it deserves.

Ankara may be useful as a stick with which to tease Paris and Berlin, but if anyone gets over-excited about the prospect of Turkey as Britain's "special friend", just throw a bucket of cold water over them by mentioning:

1. Northern Cyprus.
2. Kurds.
3. Armenians.

(A pause here for a tip of the hat to Gyppo Byard for a witty Turkey-based headline.)

As for the usual Pakistani splutterings after Cameron stated the obvious about Islamabad's support for terrorism, I am - once again - reminded of Captain Renault:

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Cameron's travels (2)

Now I learn that Cameron and Hague will be visiting Turkey next week en route to India.

Relations with Ankara are another of Hague's high priorities. He mentioned "Turkey" or "Turkish" five times in his major speech on 1 July on his foreign policy objectives - the same number as India/Indian.

(He only mentioned Russia once. China/Chinese got six mentions.)

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Cameron's travels

David Cameron has two big foreign visits over the next 10 days: this week to Washington (his first White House appointment since the election), then next week to India. The assumption is that the Washington one will go well.

The India one is more interesting. As I've already noted in passing, the new government (and William Hague in particular) is keen to put relations with India at the heart of British foreign policy.

Along with Cameron and Hague, George Osborne and Vince Cable will also be on the India trip. Has there been a similar visit in recent years in which four senior members of the cabinet have taken part?

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Hilarious nonsense

I don't often laugh uncontrollably, but this did it for me. The comments are even better.

DAB rage

The Murdoch PayWall prevents me from linking to his article in today's Times describing how and why he did it, but columnist Matthew Parris has destroyed his DAB radio in public by smashing it with a hammer.


Monday, 12 July 2010

Uganda, Somaliland and the UK

Politicians' statements after terrorist incidents are a challenge for them. They risk appearing callous if they say nothing, but (if they have any nous) know that whatever they do say can look formalistic and insincere.

William Hague got it about right with his statement today on last night's blasts in Kampala. Short, measured and a genuine expression of condemnation and condolence.

My only quibble is with describing the attacks as "cowardly". This is meant to highlight the fact that the attackers hit purely civilian targets at their most vulnerable - without warning and on an occasion that was meant to be a fun night out. But it risks grading terrorism. Are some attacks less cowardly?

Much happier news recently from east Africa was the presidential election in Somaliland. But would anyone guess from the official British message of congratulations to the winner - by chance, on the FCO website adjacent to Hague's condolence message - that the UK (and all other countries) do not (officially) recognize Somaliland as an independent sovereign state?


Thursday, 8 July 2010

National Anthems (2)

So, it is to be a Netherlands-Spain World Cup final.

Further to my reflections yesterday, this will add an interesting note to the last two lines of the anthem the Dutch will be singing:

den Koning van Hispanje
heb ik altijd geƫerd.

(To the king of Spain I've granted
A lifelong loyalty.)

Meanwhile, the Spanish national anthem has no lyrics at all!

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

National Anthems

I'm not interest in football, or any other sports. But I've watched a few World Cup matches as some associated aspects provide an attraction.

One is the national anthems played at the start. I've long been interested in these, based on hearing so many of them on shortwave radio over four decades.

The Portuguese and Greek ones were early favourites, especially when I learnt that the former once had a line about "marching against the Britons".

The Devil certainly has some of the best tunes in national anthems. Die Stem, the anthem of apartheid South Africa, is a cracker, and a truncated version of it has been incorporated in the current SA anthem, though the apocalyptic penultimate line:

At thy will to live or perish,
O South Africa, dear land

(with, in the official SABC recording, a melodramatic drum-roll and crash of cymbals)

has been replaced by:

Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land

Other defunct dictatorial regimes with great anthems were East Germany and the USSR.

Returning to the World Cup, I'll watch tonight's match if for nothing else to hear Het Wilhelmus, I think the only national anthem sung in the first person of a long-dead monarch.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Rich and Poor

The government's decision that international aid will be one of the few areas of spending protected from cuts prompts the question: why are some countries so much poorer than others? Or to put it another way: what makes countries rich?

One answer is that rich countries are that way because they are rich. They have well developed physical infrastructures, near universal education (often to a high standard) and good levels of public health (very low rates of transmittable, high-mortality diseases). All those things are massively useful in helping them to stay rich. And if you don't have them - if you have poor roads, no railways, limited mains electricity, high levels of illiteracy, high rates of disease, low life expectancy - you struggle to advance.

Natural resources can help. The gulf sheikdoms would be among the poorest places on earth but for the oil. But it doesn't always work. When I heard that Ghana - a country I know slightly and admire considerably - was to become an oil exporter, I felt both hope and alarm. Nigeria has plenty of oil; Switzerland none.

A classic geographer's recommendation for getting rich is to avoid being landlocked. Outside Europe, there's a high correlation between being landlocked and being poor. But it's not a firm rule. Even ignoring Switzerland again (and some other landlocked but wealthy European countries), there's landlocked Botswana - one of Africa's richest states. And not being landlocked certainly doesn't automatically make you wealthy - e.g. Nigeria, again.

A view advanced in one of my geography A-level text books more than 30 years ago was climate: the debilitating heat of the tropics is not conducive to hard and productive labour - physical or mental. That sounds simplistic, almost laughable, but what about those surveys that tell employers here in the UK to keep their offices at exactly the right temperature to ensure happy and hard-working employees?

Tanzania's Julius Nyerere (a generally well-meaning fool) certainly thought climate was important. He said the extremes of summer and winter in the higher latitudes instilled a discipline in their inhabitants. It taught them to take good advantage of the summer to prepare for the winter ahead. In the tropics, such planning is not needed as much. Some food crops may grow all year round, there's no need to draught-proof your home against winter gales, the same clothes can be worn in all months.

I have two recommendations for escaping poverty: avoid violence and get a good government. There are no countries in the world that are violent and badly-run and rich.

My advice to DfID is - except in those cases where it may be possible to recolonise a violent, very badly run and very poor country to turn it around (what we are doing in Sierra Leone
) - only invest your aid in countries that are peaceful and well governed. Otherwise, it will just go to waste.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Lords, radios and badgers

Conflict-of-interest considerations oblige Sauti Ndogo to tread lightly when discussing digital radio.

But there's no harm in posting this story, which we also add to to our "House of Lords, Eccentricities of members of the" file.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Preposition abuse

Two irritating developments in British life over the past two decades are connected.

The first is public address systems on public transport. We seemed to manage OK without them. Passengers travelling to an unfamiliar destination would acquaint themselves with the scheduled time of arrival, so as to avoid missing it, and perhaps also note the identity of the immediate prior station, so as to be prepared.

Today, I begin all rail journeys in a state of linguistic depression, given that, by necessity, they must start at what are now called "train stations".

And I know that even a relatively short journey on lines where there a number of stops will be punctuated by repetitive automatic announcements after each station:
  • Welcoming "customers" (groan) "on board" (groan) "this train operated by blah-blah company" (who cares?).

  • Informing us of the ultimate destination and all of the intervening stops (potentially useful information, but maddening after the umpteenth repetition).

  • Telling us to read blah-blah company's safety instructions.

  • Instructing us on what not to do, e.g. don't play music too loud (routinely ignored by the oafs and sluts who engage in such behaviour).

The only merit of these pre-recorded announcements is that, being standardized and repetitive, the brain can easily recognise them as soon as they start, so as to ignore them.

More troublesome is the ad hoc use of the PA by the "train service manager". Invariably, these contain at least two horrors.

The first will be the announcement of our next "station stop". When did this brainless word-redundancy become ubiquitous? Should the TSM ever be within range of me when next saying it, I will ask: "As you find it essential to tell me the next 'station stop', for completeness I also require you to state when we will next stop where there is no station, and when we will next pass a station without stopping."

The second fatuity will be one or more incidents of preposition abuse. We will be told to be careful "when stepping off of the train". If one is on the tube, there will be an instruction to "move right inside of the car".

When prepositions are not being added to needlessly, they will be misused. The train will not arrive at but into Paddington (which, as it is "our final station stop", all "customers" must be thanked for travelling with blah-blah company, asked to be careful to remove all their belongings from "inside of" the train and urged to exercise caution in "stepping off of" it).

My guess is that TSMs think that using into makes them sound like an airline captain ("good news folks - we'll be arriving into JFK an hour early"), and therefore raises their banal witterings about suburban train movements to a more sophisticated level.

But what is the explanation for preposition abuse in Britain? We normally follow American trends, yet given the chance they eliminate prepositions (they have a similar attitude to auxiliary verbs). Illogically, we still find their "write me" odd although we've happily adopted "call me".

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Best known US TV news channel gives up best known US news agency

I don't think this is good news. My concern is not so much for CNN's output, but that it will weaken the AP.

The AP has a deserved high reputation for international news coverage. Losing such a major client as CNN might encourage others to drop their AP subscription. It becomes a vicious circle - less funding for the AP means a poorer service, hence other customers may depart...

Afghanistan - a sense of doom

I felt today a sudden slide in the West's position in Afghanistan.

Not so much the position on the ground - though that is hardly encouraging - more a sense of woe and disarray at the top.

The past 24 hours have seen a rush of bad news. The top US general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, has been ordered back to Washington following an indiscreet magazine interview.

The UK's top official on Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has gone on "extended leave" amid reports that he has lost faith in NATO's strategy and is at odds with other top officials.

Congressional investigators have reported that the US military is paying tens of millions of dollars in protection money to security firms, which pass on the money to warlords and the Taliban. (This last story is not new - but the report looks authoritative and damning.)

Coincidence, yes, but together these stories create a mood that we're losing, that we don't know what to do about it, and that we are preparing for failure. From being a "never-ending" war, perhaps it will end (for us, at least) sooner than we thought.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Edward Heath and Jeremy Thorpe

According to Reuters (in a book review today), "the 1980s are back in vogue". Not at Sauti Ndogo HQ they're not, as I'm more interested in the 1970s.

Philip Ziegler's authorized biography of Edward Heath has just been published. An excellent review
by Robert Harris describes it as "the most damning official biography of a British prime minister ever written".

I met Heath in 1975 or 1976 when he came to speak to my school's political debating society and about half-a-dozen of us had dinner with him afterwards. Curiously, I remember very little about the evening. The only thing I recall him talking about at the dinner table was a (no doubt well-worn) anecdote about the IRA bomb attack on his house (in December 1974 - he was not at home at the time).

Harris sums him up well: "Britain has had some odd characters as its prime minister, but few, as Ziegler makes plain in this elegant, compelling and devastating study, were quite as odd as Ted Heath."

Next week will see the 31st anniversary of a day I remember well: the acquittal on a charge of conspiracy to murder of another oddball 1970s character: Jeremy Thorpe.

Among the oddities of that scandal (such a good one, it spoilt us for the future) were Thorpe's three unlikely co-defendants (including one John Le Mesurier - part-owner of a South Wales carpet shop, not the Dad's Army star).

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Bhowani Junction

In comments below, I recommended John Masters' 1952 novel Bhowani Junction to Foghorn59. As this blog could do with more pictures, enjoy these posters of the 1956 film:

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Kyrgyzstan and walnuts

My prediction last Sunday of foreign military intervention in Kyrgyzstan now looks naive and ill-informed. It's clear that Russia is extremely wary of getting caught in a hornets' nest. Kyrgyz interim President Roza Otunbayeva has withdrawn her appeal for military intervention and pointedly said the arrival of Uzbek troops would be regarded as an act of war.

I'll console myself with an interesting fact I've learnt this week: Kyrgyzstan has extensive walnut forests.

Monday, 14 June 2010

"I'm shocked, shocked..."

The London School of Economics has published research showing that Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency funds, protects, trains and directs the Afghan Taliban to a much greater extent than had been thought.

Pakistani officials have declared themselves shocked and outraged by such a suggestion.

One thinks of Captain Renault:

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Kyrgyzstan - what's Russia up to?

On Friday afternoon (11 June), as the violence in Osh that had started the previous night had clearly not been quelled, I thought to myself: what'll happen next is that the interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, will appeal for Russian military aid, and Putin will be only too happy to oblige with some "fraternal assistance" in double-quick time. (Yes, I know that Putin, as PM, isn't suppose to control the armed forces, but we know the score.)

Sure enough, on Saturday, Otunbayeva made precisely such an appeal, saying government forces had lost control of the situation in Osh.

But, to my surprise, Russia very quickly replied that it was an internal matter and said it had no immediate plans to send troops.

Ethnic clashes, ghastly as they are, often burn out of their own accord, leaving things very tense but with little further systematic violence. But it's now Sunday evening in Osh, and things still don't look quiet. It's unclear where this is is going to end. I still think foreign troops - Russian? Uzbek? - are likely to be part of the picture sooner or later.

The BBC's Rayhan Demytrie has been doing a great job in reporting the story from southern Kyrgyzstan. The English-language pages of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty's Kyrgyzstan service are also a good source.

Craig Murray and the FCO's budget

I pay a certain attention to the well-informed thoughts of Craig Murray, the Norfolk Scot, bon viveur, former diplomat and continuing scourge of British foreign policy.

This is partly because he's one of the people I've known/met/worked with/come across before they were at all famous, or at least vaguely in the public eye. (Others in that category include national treasure Stephen Fry, BNP leader Nick Griffin, and rat-fancier and former deselected Labour MP Jane Griffiths.)

In an interesting open letter to William Hague, Murray proposes some specific (and major) cuts in the FCO's budget.

Shortly after the election, I opined that the FCO would see a resurgence of its influence (if not its budget) under Hague after a lengthy period in which the folk of King Charles Street were marginalised by those on the northern side of Downing Street. Blair became his own foreign secretary and Brown didn't want to give his rival Miliband any room to manoeuvre.

Hague is a very substantial figure in the new government, and I suspect Cameron defers to him considerably. Hague set out some cogent views on foreign policy in advance of the election, including paying much more attention to India (why has that country been so neglected by the UK, relative to its massive size and given the historical connection?) but also recognizing the need for retrenchment elsewhere.

The question now is whether Hague feels he can engineer an expanded and refocused role for the FCO, while simultaneously overseeing a reduction in its size and budget. Of course, his officials will tell him it can't be done...

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Jewel in the Crown

My eldest son (19) and I have finished a five-month exercise to watch all 14 episodes of the 1984 TV series The Jewel in the Crown. We normally see each other once a fortnight, so watching just one or perhaps two episodes each time explains why it's taken us so long to get through all of them.

I was a big fan of the series when it was first shown, and have often thought it the best thing ever produced by British television, though before this year I'd only once got round to watching it all again. The books - Paul Scott's Raj Quartet - on which the series is based are equally impressive, and probably my desert island choice (if I could break the rules slightly to take four books).

How did I find it 26 years on? It's still impressive, although the pace seems slow by today's standards. It's been years since any British TV company would consider adapting a literary work over so many episodes.

My main reaction was a somewhat altered attitude to the principal characters. Although Scott was wonderful at characterisation, the diverse (and numerous) inhabitants of the four books can be divided into the Good, the Bad and the Others. Ronald Merrick, the lower-middle-class, chip-on-his-shoulder, repressed-homosexual policeman-turned-army-officer, remains Chief Baddie (though I was surprised when I later read the books that they painted him even worse than the televised dramatisation did: I had expected - and hoped - it to be the other way around).

In the Good camp are British liberals such as Sarah Layton (an army officer's perceptive daughter, out of step with her dull, tradition-minded family), Robin White and Nigel Rowan (colonial administrators trying, in their own minds, to do their best for the Indians) and Guy Perron (a young Cambridge academic). When I first watched Jewel in the Crown these characters seemed very sympathetic. This time I thought most of them (there are exceptions) looked uninspiring, their weedy liberalism (there are other varieties) irritating.

Perron (played by alleged heart-throb Charles Dance - the series made him a star) came across as particularly ineffectual; the only time he looked energized was when he beat up Merrick's Pathan manservant after catching him nicking his wallet. Even shagging Sarah didn't seem to animate him greatly.

What do Indians today make of the books and the TV series? Not much, I'd guess. I don't blame them. Despite its setting, the Raj Quartet is about us, the British, not them. As indeed are most other novels set in the declining years of the British Empire - a topic to which I will return.

Meanwhile, Paul Scott's novels are a cracking read, and I highly recommend them!