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.


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!