Sunday, 28 April 2013

Book review: Tell Me No Lies - John Pilger (ed), 2005

Tell Me No Lies is subtitled 'Investigative journalism and its triumphs'. A more accurate although less sellable subtitle would be 'Stuff investigative journalism has uncovered', as the book is not about journalism or how it is carried out, but instead provides 27 examples of journalism's output in the form of book excerpts and articles, plus very brief introductions by the compiler, John Pilger.

This is not a book that affirm's one's faith in humanity. If an event must be investigated to be uncovered, chances are that atrocities or outrages are involved. Of the 27 accounts and 1 essay presented, around 20 deal with wars, massacres, terrorism or their effects. And even some of the other accounts are little or no less gut-wrenching.

One would expert reports of massacres to make for difficult reading, and one would be right. Yet it is often the individual stories or elements that are the most affecting, from mothers in Rwanda being forced to bury their children alive, to the budding child poet in Iraq, born the same year that I was but hospitalised with leukaemia at the opening of the reporter's story, just one of the victims of a reported 6-fold increase in childhood cancers in Iraq in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war, and who then dies at the age of 13. Or try reading about a severely disabled victim of thalidomide being kicked and beaten by other victims because of the greater size of his financial compensation without wanting the whole world to just go away for a while. And this after reading of mothers not being informed of their babies' thalidomide deformities while in the hospital, but being sent home with swaddled children and left to make the discoveries for themselves... Yeah.

Governments, in particular, do not emerge well from these pages. For example, call me hopelessly naive, but as a Brit approaching the end of his third decade who until recently had read voluminously but narrowly of only fiction and science, I had little idea that the actions of British Governments had been any cause for concern post imperialism, slavery, colonialism and Dresden up until the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Tell Me No Lies disavowed me of that ignorance. Nor had secondary-school history and 30-odd years of generally existing and consuming mainstream media given me even a ballpark comprehension of just how central the Cold War was to international relations during the entire period from the end of WWII to 1991. I thought it was mostly just the USA and Russia eyeballing each other and nearly losing all of our heads over Cuba.

I like to think that some of these failings are not entirely my own. For all of the Western World's 24-hour rolling news and minute-by-minute updates, there is a glaring lack of in-depth analysis taking into account and informing readers/viewers/listeners of historical context - an issue Pilger addresses in his introduction.

The book itself does not fill this gap. It is not a full and even-handed accounting of events, but rather a brief glimpse of the other halves of stories whose incompleteness you may not even have suspected. I for one would have benefited greatly from more extended scene-setting for each report, rather than the page or so of context actually provided. But in fairness it is not the book's aim to provide encyclopaedic accounts of entire events.

I asked in a previous post for recommendations of books that address the issue of the extent to which a country's leaders should lie to its populace if it's in the country's best interests, and I repeat that request here. There is also a wider debate to be had about the extent to which governments should be accountable to the views of their electorate and transparent in their actions. For example, is it acceptable to use more effective depleted uranium munitions which are safer for those behind them if there are questions over the safety of their fallout for civilians on the receiving end? How does ensuring the future ability of interveners to go on intervening stack up against the current tolls of those needing help? (Making the enormous assumption that the intervention is even well-intentioned in the first place.)

The book is not all hard going. Jessica Mitford's exposé of the US funeral business is bitingly witty, and Greg Palast's accounts of the removal of thousands of legitimate voters from the Florida electoral roll in 2000 has old-school panache and is probably the most revealing chapter in terms of how the investigation actually proceeded.

Also, I said at the start that Tell Me No Lies does not affirm one's faith in humanity. However, that's not quite the full story.

First, although the vast majority of the people in the book are either perpetrators or innocent victims of horrendous deeds, there are some individuals who stand out for their principled stances against the horror.

Brigadier-General Roméo A. Dallaire, commander of the UN mission in Rwanda, repeatedly refused orders to abandon the Tutsis completely to their slaughter by evacuating his peacekeepers in 1994. Chief Warrant Officer Hugh C Thompson physically interposed himself between his rampaging superiors and a huddle of unarmed Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre of 1970, later throwing away a commendation that had sought to extend the coverup by citing him for fictional deeds as opposed to his genuine heroism.

And then there are the journalists themselves, many of whom put their lives on the line to reveal to the world appalling facts that would otherwise have remained hidden.

But beyond individual acts at the time, there is another faint glimmer of hope. If you can read about someone's suffering decades later and from another continent and still feel outraged and sickened, even if it's far too late to do anything, maybe there is a chance that our shared human bond, although often all-too-easily snapped, will be strong enough to make a difference next time, provided that we're sufficiently informed in time. Maybe.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The tube has no memory

I came onto the southbound Victoria line platform at Kings Cross at about 9.20 pm this Friday night. I thought I was too late to catch the tube train that was sitting there, because the doors near me were all closed, but then I noticed a commotion further along the platform that offered some hope.

Several Transport for London staff and maybe some transport police were standing half in and half out of the doors of one carriage dealing with some kind of situation, and as I approached I saw that the next set of doors further along the same carriage were also standing half open. Unlike other people hanging back on the platform, I slipped in...

The officials back along the carriage were in the process of deciding whether to detain some dude who was fervently protesting his innocence regarding whatever incident had taken place. I gained a picture of the scene in half-heard snatches as the staff rapidly made up their minds:

"I'm the victim in this!"

"Leave him alone!"
"You stay out of this!"
"I'm his mum! She bit him, he was just standing there!"

Within a remarkably short space of time, the officials made up their minds and withdrew, presumably with some female aggressor already in custody. With that, the familiar warning beeps sounded out and the carriage doors slid shut.

At this point the central part of the carriage was unnaturally empty of people. It wasn't entirely empty: there were the man and his mum, trying to pull themselves together, and one other young dude lounging back with his leg cocked nonchalantly over another seat, looking like he hadn't moved a hair during the whole goings on. And scattered across the floor of the carriage were the crushed remains of a burger and chips complete with decimated foam packaging, making the scene look like that of a low-end food fight gotten horribly out of hand.

The unfortunate young man was now examining an impressive instant bruise about the size of a £5 coin on his upper arm, having removed both a hoodie and a lightweight jacket to inspect the damage. The skin was scraped and ragged but looked unperforated, and there was no sign of extracutaneous blood.

I considered the situation. Both ends of the carriage were fully populated with seated people but largely empty of standees, whereas my central section was mostly empty of seated people but very crowded with somewhat shaken-looking standees. Reasoning that the danger was over, I excused my way through the crowd and sat down opposite the young man and his mother, just now themselves regaining their wits. One other man also took a perch at the far end of the section, but aside from he and I everyone else remained standing as the train pulled away.

I surreptitiously glanced at the man and his mother from time to time as the metres slid by. There were some quiet enquiries as to wellbeing from one to the other, but they were surprisingly low-key considering what had happened. The mother found or regained an Evening Standard from somewhere and directed the main force of her attention its way, although the hands holding it trembled. The son simply sat trembled and wondered where to look and what to do.

I looked at my feet, at the squashed chips, occasionally at the tube map and occasionally at the poor people opposite me and those still standing by the doors. Who knows what terrible scenes these people had witnessed, and why they were still so unwilling to sit down. Perhaps blood had been spilt after all - or not only spilt, but sprayed wildly across the seats, in Tarantino-esque reproduction of the ketchup smeared across the floor. I couldn't see any, though.

And then the tube reached Euston and the carriage doors opened and people embarked and, not knowing any reason not to, pushed past those still standing and filled the empty seats, pausing briefly at the sight of tattered foam and mashed potato, but not letting it stop them from claiming their deserved rest. A pack of teenage girls in skin-tight jeggings and faux-leather jackets squeezed on, squalling and laughing and drinking wine straight from a bottle, and suddenly they were the thing to contend with, the place not to look, the thing people wanted to be over.

When the man and his mum left the carriage at Oxford Circus, the only sign that anything had ever been amiss, aside from the stray chips and burger patty, came when the man who had perched on a seat when I took mine advised the fellow who had been bitten to perhaps see a doctor in the morning, to which the bitten murmured his quiet thanks.

The tube has no memory.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Book review: Story - Robert McKee

I'm often not the most perceptive person. For example, I managed to watch a film I like about half a dozen times without realising that one of the main characters kills himself. I probably would never have realised if my friend hadn't said to me, "Isn't it sad when..."

Which is why I wish I'd found Story 10 years ago. I've harboured the desire to write, on and off, pretty much ever since I learned to read, but aside from enjoying Stephen King's On Writing and, more recently, bookmarking useful websites that have reached me via Twitter, I haven't made the effort to get to grips with the craft of the process. I'm not sure why. I think fear plays a large part, but I need to give it more honest thought.

Anyway, Story is about the most instructive thing I've ever read. I may never successfully write anything, but I feel like I've taken about 12 gigantic leaps forward for having read this book. Going back to what I said at the start, I think I could have read books and watched films and TV forever without ever having come to such now-simple-seeming realisations as that the nature of the protagnist's conflict determines the medium for which the story is best suited.

For the ignorant like me, Story is packed with gems such as this.

Not only that, but McKee makes for a very entertaining, interesting and amiable teacher, so reading Story never feels like ploughing through a textbook. Instead, I wanted to reach for it as often as a good murder mystery, and it was only the frequency with which my mind was blown by the density of insight that made me put the book back down for a while every 20 pages or so.

I was in two minds whether to recommend the book or not, because the petty, jealous part of me thinks that the fewer people who know this stuff, the less competition there will be if I ever get my act together. But McKee deserves better thanks than that.

So thank you, Robert, very much.