Category Archives: Opinion

John Cantlie, British Journalist Held by Daesh, Reports From Kobani

Islamic State have released a new video of British hostage John Cantlie, who has become the English speaking mouthpiece of the organization after over two years in captivity.

Cantlie has been the presenter of a series of news-style reports over recent weeks. Filmed wearing an orange tunic, he has delivered propaganda pieces direct to camera, in a series entitled Lend Me Your Ears. Episode 5, released Sunday 26th October, claims that hostages have been waterboarded, and in previous episodes he has spoken of being abandoned by his government.

Until the video from inside Kobani, released 27th October, it was difficult to ascertain if the Lend Me Your Ears series was shot in one sitting – current events in the fight against IS are not mentioned.

Now, however, Cantlie directly references news reports from the BBC on the 17th October, and is wearing a much fuller beard than that seen in the videos, which remains uniform throughout the five episodes of Lend Me Your Ears, suggesting that they were indeed shot at one time.

The Kobani video opens with footage from a remote controlled multi-rotor helicopter, surveying the damage done to the city, before it cuts to Cantlie.

He opens, “We are here inside the so-called PKK safe zone that is now controlled by the Islamic State.

“Despite continual US air strikes which have so far cost nearly half a billion dollars in total, the mujahideen have pushed deep into the heart of the city. They now control the eastern and southern sectors.

“The western media, and I can’t see any of them here, have been saying that the Islamic State are on the retreat. In the last 48 hours, hundreds of Islamic State militants have been reportedly killed in air strikes according to the IB Times on the 16th October. ‘We know we’ve killed several hundred of them,’ said John Kirby the Pentagon official. The Islamic State is retreating from the city of Kobani, said the BBC on October 17th, while Patrick Cockburn said in The Independent that despite suffering serious losses, the Islamic State was continuing its assault on the city.”

He also mentions the arrival of Peshmerga, dating the video to within the last seven days, “Kobani is now being reinforced by Iraqi Kurds who are coming in through Turkey while the mujahideen are being resupplied by the hopeless United States air force, who parachuted two crates of weapons and ammunition straight into the outstretched arms of the mujahideen.”

Cantlie then addresses the lack of on the ground reports leaving Kobani, “Without any safe access, there are no journalists here in the city, so the media are getting their information from Kurdish commanders and White House press secretaries, neither of whom have the slightest intention of telling the truth about what’s happening here on the ground.”

However, this is contradicted by a report on NBC from Iraqi Kurdish journalist Shirwan Qasim. Qasim spent three days in Kobani last week, where he reported that whilst Kurdish fighters are in good spirits, there are no safe areas in the city.

Kobani is, Qasim says, a ‘ghost town’ of just several hundred people.

Cantlie appears to confirm this, but claims the city is in the hands of Islamic State militants.

“The battle for Kobani is coming to an end, the mujahideen are just mopping up now, street to street and building to building; you can occasionally hear sporadic gunfire in the background as a result of those operations.”

He finishes his piece with a flourish of propaganda now expected from the Islamic State media machine, “Urban warfare is about as nasty and tough as it gets, and it’s something of a specialty of the mujahideen.”

A Simplified View Of Iraq Today.

Over the last 6 days, Iraq has seen the rapid escalation of the Daash insurgency. Daash is the local name for what you might see described in the western press as ISIS or ISIL. Having come across the pourous border from Syria, this Sunni militia has had control of the Anbar province, more or less, since the early part of 2014. Whilst the province is majority Sunni, the local sheiks didn’t want the Sharia law that was coming with Daath. Initially they agreed to fight them with the Shia government of Prime Minister Maliki (as they did with the Americans during The Surge). However, that policy failed and the government is tackling the problem with barrel bombs dropping on the cities of Fallujah and Anbar. Of course this tactic has created many civilian casualties and deaths.

Mosul, further north in the province of Nineveh, has been a very dangerous place for a long time. Rumblings of Daash influence have been reported for many months – record shop owners being told to close their stores, this strict interpretation of Islam similar to that of the Taliban. On Friday 8th June 2014 they began an attack on the administrative buildings of the city, and by Tuesday 10th they were in control of the west of the city including the army base that was deserted, first by the commanders who appear to have had prior warning of the attack and then the lower ranks. The majority of these soldiers are Shia from Baghdad, Najaf, Basra and elsewhere in the south. Here is a photo of them queuing outside Iraqi Airways in Erbil today, Thursday 12th, desperate to fly home.

Credit: Brian Lione

Those flying to Najaf, a city of especial Shia signifance for its Imam Ali Shrine, might be advised to go elsewhere – Daash has stated its intention to march on that city as well as the other Shia pilgrimage city of Karbala and have surrounded the city of Samarra, the site of the Askari shrine. They also believe that they will have Friday prayers in Baghdad tomorrow.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that up to 80 Turkish citizens are being held hostage by Daash, with Turkey calling on its NATO allies to respond. Add to this offers of help against the Sunni Daash from Iran and Assad in Syriad, and there’s a confusing mishmash of offers and demands.

I had coffee with a friend from Mosul today. He has bought his family to live with friends in Erbil (those not sponsored are having to live in temporary camps outside city limits until they are verified to not be Daash). He is happy to be here, and I asked him about Mosul. “Everyone is happy”, he said, “because now Iraq army gone. I had six years in Mosul, when I came there from Baghdad. Now Erbil is home.” What about Daash, what are they like? “They don’t hurt people, but Sharia. No good.”

On their way down to Baghdad and Samarra, Daash attacked the city of Kirkuk, a place almost always described as ‘problematic’, ‘disputed’ or ‘strategically important’. It’s been coveted by both the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government for years, mostly because of the oil and gas reserves. It’s ethnically diverse, with Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds and until yesterday was guarded by both federal and Kurdish peshmerga forces. As with Mosul, it seems that the Iraqi army fled. However, the peshmerga are a much more highly trained outfit, who have the common cause of their homeland. KRG has always seen Kirkuk as part of their territory and it appears that Daash chose not to fight this battle, which now leaves the peshmerga allegedly in total control of the city. This could be significant.

Since the beginning of this year, Baghdad has refused to release the 17% of the national budget owed to the Kurdistan Region. Public sector workers have gone unpaid or are working on greatly reduced salaries. The argument is about whether KRG has the right to sell its own oil. The constitution of Iraq is argued back and forth and Kurdish politicians bang the independence drum before elections, whilst everyone accepts that this can’t happen for a few years, at least. The oil wells are new, and the pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan has only just opened – two million barrels have filled two tankers, which have struggled to find buyers, although rumours abound daily.

The violence in the south, the apparent disinterest of Daash moving towards Kurdish territory and the strength of the peshmerga, coupled with the confidence that comes with a growing economy are bound to lead to speculation about the possibility of independence. For now all that matters is that the region is safe.

This is a fluid situation, that has moved extremely quickly. Only a fool would make strong predictions about the following days, weeks and months.

Fiddling While Rome Burns or Let Them Eat Cake

I have two phrases that I use when I find myself slightly confused by something Kurdish.

The first, “Zor Kurdi” (Very Kurdish) I used when a Kurdish friend of mine insisted that we enter the memorial museum in Halabja via the clearly unmanned security kiosk. It wasn’t a big diversion, but it seemed unnecessary and smacked of the kind of indoctrinated behaviour I naturally rail against. A small thing, we can agree, but so are the mosquitoes currently feasting upon me.

Secondly, “Bexerbet Kurdistan” (Welcome to Kurdistan) I use to illustrate something that feels unique to the region. On the roads, for example, when taxis creep to an almost imperceptible speed going over any crack in the road; a regular driver of mine once slowed for a shadow cast by election bunting. Or the honking at the lights, three seconds before they turn green – such patience for speed bumps, and glorious anxiety to get on the move elsewhere.

These oddities don’t annoy me; they almost always cause a wry smile. It’s a part of travelling and living abroad, to appreciate the differences. And as a guest here, I try to steer clear of criticising my hosts. I am sensitive to both the hard work that is being done to improve a young proto-state and to my own privilege of having been bought up in a country with a long-established (admittedly now creaking under successive self-interested governments, but enough of that) social and physical infrastructure.

A street nearby in Ankawa has recently had the start of a sewerage system installed. My mind struggles to conceive of the enormity of this project, of the necessary chaos the groundworks will bring. It’s brilliant that it’s being done, and whilst I have very little knowledge of the intricacies of such an operation, I hope it’s being done with foresight and to the highest standard possible. These literal foundations are going to define the KRG, and a poor job is going to reflect laughably on a city irritatingly labelled the ‘new Dubai’ – Hawler has history Dubai can only dream of, and in the rush for riches must not forget its personality.

So when a headline as unlikely as “French firm to build small Eiffel-style tower in Iraq” pops up in my daily Google alerts, my heart sinks. Why in the world does any city in Kurdistan, let alone Sulaymaniyah with its skyline defining Grand Millennium, need a replica Eiffel tower? Under the headline, something more annoying becomes clear.

“In line with investment laws in Kurdistan, foreign investors are asked to carry out a tourism project in the city where they intend to invest,” according to Yousuf Yassin, director of Sulaymaniyah municipality.

I understand the focus on tourism, I see that it’s a pillar worth building the new Kurdistan on. It’s a beautiful country, with some good quality hiking in the areas safe from mines. And the 300 square kilometres that remain dangerous are being cleared, slowly. Perhaps the French firm should be required to make a substantial donation to MAG or one of the other organisations working in this arena?

The streets of the cities and towns in Kurdistan are regularly and well-maintained and in the capital there are moves to create more green spaces to compliment the parks that are already here – but what of the can and bottle strewn disasters on the mountains of Goizha and Azmaar? Why not have investors plunge their social responsibility funds into public education films and litter-pick initiatives? Perhaps a larger, more comprehensive education programme that addresses water scarcity and the folly of hosing down streets?

As I approach the end of my third year living here, I’m asked how long I intend to stay. My answer is that I will stay as long as I’m welcome. I use an idiom, ‘if it’s not broken, why fix it?’ to describe my situation. That doesn’t apply to the region though, and whilst measures are in place and initiatives have started, I can’t help but think that some of the foreign investment could be put to better use.

And then, something zor Kurdi will be most welcoming.

My first three months in The Ocelot

I’ve been writing a monthly dribble for a mate’s listings magazine back in England. Here are the fruits of the first quarter.


The first words of what I hope will be a regular column for Ocelot are these, as I typed, deleted and retyped several strings of nonsense before settling on this cowardly introduction. I promise to endeavour to improve, but you’ll be the judges of whether I succeed. I’m Luke, and I have a confession. I’ve known your editor since school, and I’ve been asked to write for his esteemed organ on the basis that he likes the cut of my jib in emails (ok, Facebook updates). We spent many a wistful hour ducking the attentions of teachers whilst puffing on fags in a cafe named Charts, down the road from our public school. Yes, I’m afraid I’m Gideon ‘George’ Osbourne to his David ‘Call me Dave’ Cameron. Heaven help him, and indeed his readership. He’s asked me to steer clear of the controversial, so I shalln’t wear my politics on my sleeve and make any jokes about the failure or success of our Chancellor of the Exchequer. Just before Christmas last year, a couple of dozen of us alumni of our former alma mater (I hope you’re picturing us amongst Gothic spires, the comforting sound of leather striking willow our soundtrack) got together for a twenty year reunion. As you can imagine, everything was different but the same. For sure, most of us were carrying a little extra timber. I seemed to be the only one unencumbered by marriage or children. Those partaking of tobacco were fewer, but I’m happy to report there were no new recruits to the filthy habit. One girl had somehow pulled off the Wildean trick of appearing younger as we scream towards 40 than she did as we confidently exited our teens. But our minds remained refreshingly similar and we sunk into old conversational habits, but with new topics. So, rather than have something to say about being almost 40 in Wiltshire, I will be channelling the sixth former from Gloucestershire….even though I’m a teacher in Iraq. And I’ll take the advice of almost every report card my parents received for next month’s issue; ‘Must try harder.’


Ah, March. The month of spring springing and the occasional bothering of the thermometer at 15c or more. I know that will be something of a welcome back in Blighty, should it happen. Here in Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurdle Burdle as I prefer it), it warrants an entire month off for the institute that I work at (sadly, unpaid). The Kurds love the equinox, and celebrate it as New Year, or Newroz. Last year I flew mum over for her 80th birthday present (would’ve loved to see her friends’ reaction to that bit of news) and we got in the crush in the mountain city of Akre, where bonfires and torches were the only thing marginally more important than taking photos of the daft English sod and his mother dressed up in the local garb. This year, on behest of a friend who wants something a bit different for her radio show, I’m off on an adventure. I’m heading into Turkish Kurdistan (Kurdy Wurdy) to record my quest to find some Kangal dogs, a mastiff-type monster that I accidentally came across whilst looking for pictures of a different Kurdish dog. I was bought up with wolfhounds, so it’s natural for me to be attracted to these herd protecting dogs, but I am absolutely not coming home with one. Not this time, anyway. But I need a name for the project, and I can’t get away from puns. So far I’ve got “For The Love Of Dog” and any other God-based bullshit and the even more tortured “Kangal Ruse”. Help me out, please?


Here I am, on my little adventure that has been broadened to include a hunt for Van cats as well as Kangal dogs – I’ve found some puppies living semi-wild in a cave, you can see the cute little sods above. Still need to find an adult.
I found them in a village called Hasankeyf, 7 times the capital of Mesoptamia and once home to up to 70,000 living in caves along the banks of the mighty Tigris, an important staging post on the Silk Route. A rich history, no doubt, with cunniform writing on the cave walls, a Byzantine era Roman bridge, a 700 year old mosque – the delights continue and it’s a wonderful relaxed place to throw a couple of days. You should visit.
But you’ll have to be quick. It’s going to disappear unless something is done urgently. The Turkish government is pushing ahead with plans for their latest dam, the Ilisu which will submerge it and one of the most important Mesopotamian sites. Other dams in the region have of course brought prosperity, with the flooded valleys fine for fish, the irrigation perfect for cotton. But malaria has increased tenfold and countries downstream are angry at perceived water theft. It’s a crying shame, and an environmental catastrophe.

The Race

I’ve recently reconnected with an acquaintance – a friend to many of my friends, but someone I’ve met only on one messy weekend. It was a festival last year, and whilst bonding occurs, depth is rarely found – especially when, on the first night, you steal that person’s bed. She’s called Emma.

I’ve also recently started running. This was at the behest of a Swiss friend, Lucie, who like so many in this city, works for an NGO. It was a habit she wished to regain, but the mountains can be home to feral dogs or lonely farmers and shepherds, and a chaperone is required. An unlikely role for a 20-a-day idiot like myself, especially when it means a 6.20am start, but ever the hero, I stepped up. We’ve found a route along the side of one of the mountains that suits us fine, which drops on the way to the end of the track, but seems to rise mercilessly on the return. It takes 20 minutes, determination and all my breath. Today, I walked for only 5 yards before breaking back into my PB-setting pace.

And so to the final part of my triptych. Tom is an ex-con building an adventure playground in Halabja, a city 60 kilometres east of Suli, the setting for the chemical gas attack launched by Saddam in 1988. Tom’s reasons for being there are many and varied, and the project is of too great a scope to squash into here. I mention that Tom has done time for a reason. After spending the afternoon with him and the kids on the site that is slowly being transformed into the kind of playground we’d all love to have had access to as a child, we retired to his quarters and sat chatting on thin mattresses on the floor. Tom stretched and lit incense but this was just part of a routine for him, not a showy flirtation with Buddhism and yoga. He’s very open about his past, and after talking for a few hours, I feel I could have written his memoir for him. As one of a very small community of expats in Halabja, I got the sense that Tom doesn’t get the chance to unload his thoughts often. He has a keen mind, speaks enough Kurdish to get by, and seems to know almost everyone in the city. But that mind, last Friday evening at least, needed to express itself, so I learnt of his family, his motivations, and of course his time in prison. It was how he dealt with his time that left an impression on me.

I often have the feeling of “what next?” When will I finish this course with the students? When am I next returning to England? What am I doing after lessons today? I can’t wait to go to Burning Man next year. There is a concrete part of my psyche that is always thinking ahead, like the lure of an angler fish, or the carrot dangling just in front of the donkey – I’m driven to think forward and that of course leads to the end of the road.

A lot of prisoners, as Tom pointed out to me, live in the past. Inside it must be easy to reflect on past glories, past lovers. Equally it is tempting, even at the start of a long stretch, to dream of that first night in the pub, the first shag, a decent meal. Talking about all this, I mentioned that I try to live in the present. Probably, I was trying to emulate my new friend who had learnt to do this through necessity, but wasn’t trying to guide me (at least not with the directness of those who enjoy starting sentences, “As a Buddhist….”).

Emma got in touch with me after reading my scribbles about “Sarah” a couple of weeks ago. She, like a lot of people, appreciated my openness. We’ve thrown some emails back and forth, and we came to the subject of her art. I took to her life model watercolours and confessed a desire to be a model at some stage – it appeals to the vain naturist in me. Her next email was subject-headed “Do you think you have what it takes….?” and described it as “a pursuit for people happy to be with their thoughts”. Of course, was my reaction, of course I am. I could sit or stand there for an hour or two, not moving, just being. That was at 6.00am this morning, as I prepared to go for a run. I wrote some bleary-eyed nonsense, but promised to think on during the jog and to return with an answer of sorts. This is that answer.

Lucie and I were joined by our friend Kamaran today, and as we parked up at our usual spot, I looked out to the end of the track. It snakes around the ripples in the mountain, so you never truly know how much further there is to run, but you can see the end, which marks the half way point. We stretched and set off and I tried to force my internal dialogue to get onto the subject of life modelling. Much like trying to recapture a dream after waking up, I couldn’t focus on it. I just kept thinking about getting this 20 minutes of torture out of the way – “around four more turns, I’ll be halfway without having stopped, then I can turn and start getting back to the car.” I settled into my run, got my breath going how I like it and thought about how I managed to keep going on the return leg last time. I’d read an article about the siege of Leningrad, and how those poor bastards hadn’t given up. For some reason that managed to get me through the slight incline back to the car. Maybe I’d use the same tactic. And then it just occurred to me. Feel my breath, feel my lungs, feel my heart, feel my legs. Recognise these feelings separately and together and just those feelings. Just that instant. And for the most part, I lived in the moment for twenty minutes and felt better than ever before when I finished.

If I ever life model, or go to prison, that presence will be grand.

Brief Encounter

A stream of consciousness I needed to get out. It burped onto the page in just 40 minutes.

I’d touched down at Gatwick at around 6.30pm on the first day of August this year. I’d had a terrible flight, compounded by the lack of my usual medicine of a glass or six of something “fortifying”. Whether it was the start of Ramadan that meant there was nothing alcoholic on the plane, or just because it was an observant airline, I don’t know. But I was shattered, nerves frayed and body beaten by the journey that had got me there via Malmo, Sweden. All I wanted was to get on the train and share a meal with good friends in Bayswater, a not unreasonable target to end the day.

As I got to the platform, it was clear that not everything was as it should have been. The hordes, oh the hordes and hordes of pissed off travellers, unable to make good their escape. I forced calm to settle over me, as I saw a wait stretch before me. A conversation with a platform guard furnished me with the unwanted intelligence that a landslip further up the track had meddled the timetables and it was going to take some time. So I sat. 

And soon I saw fit to ask again, for any further information. Alongside me was an impossibly beautiful, willowy dark girl. She didn’t take my breath, but as someone who has never tried to chat up a stranger, she took words that were perhaps never there in the first place. She said something, and my mind whirred, “Luke, you’ve got good cards here. Think about it…’ve got stuff going on that might break the ice…”

“Well, ” I started falteringly, “I’d have thought my delays would’ve been at the other end.” Of course, she asked where I’d started the day’s journey. “Iraq.” I just left it there, feeling more as if I was playing poker than trying not to faint in her presence. “Oh, are you in the army?” I left the merest of beats before replying, “No, I’m a teacher….” And then a longer beat – I’m rebuilding a nation I laughed to myself. We got on, we got on well. She told me she’d been in Turkey for two weeks starting her third book (oh, you get better) and I mumbled something about trying to be a writer myself. I felt 12 years old. Sarah, for that is her name, decided to jump on a train, whilst I elected to await an Express. I took my phone from my pocket, but realised I didn’t have a number to give, no sim yet purchased. I couldn’t ask for hers, too forward. “Do you use Facebook?” she asked, and gave me her name. I added her as a friend just as soon as I could get access, a few hours later.

I woke up at my friends’ house and was pleased to see she’d written to me. A long, pleasant message, complimenting me on my clothes, and certainly giving me some signals. I wrote back. She wrote back. We swapped numbers. We started to text and email regularly.

A couple of days later, I was with friends. I showed them Facebook pictures of Sarah. Jane spotted that the dust jacket of her debut memoir was in amongst the pictures. “An honest memoir of a coke-addicted call girl in London” was about the long and short of it.

I wasn’t appalled. I didn’t think anything. There was no judgement, merely a “hmmm, she’s lived” and an unchanged desire to meet, which we soon agreed to do. On my birthday, 12th August. We met around the corner from the London Palladium and kissed long and passionately. We sat for food which we didn’t eat, kissing and looking at each other instead. She gave me a card which read “From This Day Forward” on the front. I gave her a book I thought she might enjoy, that I’d read a year ago. And I tried to take it back. I had only then remembered that the main character, as well as being a werewolf, was a prostitute. I was mortified. She laughed, she was easy with it. She gave me two books; Delta Of Venus by Anais Nin, as an erotic work as is possibly acceptable on a first date, if at all; and a Paul Smith notebook, “I have one too. When you are in Iraq and you see something you want to share with me, write it down. I will do the same here, and when we see each other next we will swap.” As we left, she said she was going to do something she hadn’t done for ages tonight.

“A massive line of coke?” I suggested with a straight face. “No, I’m going to suck off a sweaty businessman for £300,” she deadpanned back. Funny, intelligent, beautiful…undeniably a bit fucked up, but aren’t we all? She was, in fact, attending NA.

After a weekend in Brighton, we agreed to meet the following Sunday. She picked me up at the station and we went back to her flat. We spent 10 glorious hours discovering a near-perfect erotic match. And with that, we awoke on Monday morning and she went to work. I left a little later and returned to Stroud….I missed her almost immediately.

On the Tuesday morning, I woke up and checked Facebook. Sarah had written on her wall (it’s a fan page really, as I discovered, where people talk about recovery and prostitution) “Why can’t I just be normal, why isn’t this going to work?” Of course, I texted her. Of course, she told me that this wasn’t going to work. 

My mother picked me up from the friend’s pub where I was staying. I was distraught but keeping it below the surface, but mothers know. When she asked me what was wrong, I dissolved into floods of tears. I felt I’d had a chance, no matter how weak the foundations, pulled from me. A feeling had been aroused in me, connected undoubtedly with sex and with the fuck-it-all hyper-speed that we’d developed, that I hadn’t had for years. I wanted to give it a go with Sarah, and I told mum about her history. To my surprise (but on reflection I should have expected nothing less from a wonderfully caring woman such as her), she said, “Everyone has history, and it’s who she is now that is important.” A platitude, almost certainly, but thoughtful. Mind you, I was driving and I’m pretty sure mum was a bit fucking nervous about my fitness to do so.

Over the next few days, I tried to not think of Sarah. But a supernova, that burns so bright and so fast, is hot as well, and the burn wouldn’t be salved. I relented and sent her a text. Her reply was breezy and we agreed to keep in touch. 

My last weekend in England, I spent with the friends that I’d stayed with the night after I met Sarah. On the Monday, before I left on the Tuesday, Sarah suggested meeting for coffee. Like a fly to a purple fluorescent strip, I went and we clicked again. She had a royalty cheque on the way, and was going to use some of it to visit me in Kurdistan in September. The distance might be good for a couple of romantic dreamers like ourselves. She apologised for upsetting me in the past week, I was so delirious I told her it was nothing. Promises were made on both sides, and we parted with tearing eyes and happy hearts.

We kept in close contact until my flight, texts, phone calls and further promises. I texted when I landed, as promised. I received no reply, but messages often don’t reach here from the UK. 

I didn’t hear from her for a day, so I sent her an email, telling her I missed her already, being a soppy sod. She sent one back suggesting I find someone in Iraq to fill her place. Yep, that’s what it said. I read it a few times, and then replied, “Does this mean you’re not coming out to visit, then?” “No.” “But, what about what we said? Why did you say those things and make those promises on Monday?”

I got this in reply:

because i actually GENUINELY LIKE you. that’s why. its simple.
but you know something – some people say things at specific times, that they mean intensely at the time, and then maybe that alters. So what??

i like you Luke, but i don’t want daily contact – i don’t want to feel that you are my ‘betrothed’, i don’t want to feel that I must reply to every single email i get from you.
I don’t want to think that you are thinking about me lots, or missing me.
i don’t want to feel trapped.
i don’t want to feel any sense of re4sponsibility for how you feel.
I don’t want to feel any of this stuff.
I just don’t.
and i won’t.

don’t hold me to ransom for any of what ive said or done.
we owe each other nothing.

and now I’m getting angry

There has been some contact since, but after a promise to write me a good catch up email a few weeks ago, I’ve heard nothing. We all know that logically, I’m a fool to think any more about it. We’re also all aware that the heart doesn’t work like that.

Podcasts I Know & Love

I’ve been asked to write some podcast reviews for my friends over at – always happy to help.

Podcasts that I know and love

Mr Happenstance and I go way back….we’ve known each other for 27 years, although there was an interamicum of 16 years before an unlikely reunion was sparked by a sighting in O’Brien’s “Irish” Bar in Kyiv, Ukraine. It remains one of the most incredible coincidences of my life, as I was talking about him not 10 minutes before I saw him. This is a story for another time. Mr H has asked me to pen an irregular (i.e. when I get around to it, but not too often as I have a habit of going on a bit) posting about podcasts…..I’m here to tell you that your iPod is too heavy with music, that those minutes on the commute could be invested with drama or that the aural distraction from your exercise could be expanding your mind as well as your lungs.

I like to think of myself as half-decent company, but sometimes I like to be the passive partner in a conversation – not in a “tell me about yourself” type of way, or worse still “please, go to the toilet for the third time this half-hour so that you may return refreshed with new angles on the story about how fucking great you were during the sales conference”. I like to be informed, and I’m afraid that sometimes one must turn to the experts. It was during those months I lived in Kyiv that I discovered a love for The Spoken Word. I had no television, and I’m a slut for telly, but I wanted some English language entertainment. So I started to dip my toe in the world of podcasts. The Archers, inexplicably, was the first subscription. Then the Russell Brand BBC show – I’m one of the people that saw that whole furore coming, having listened to the show rather than getting sucked down the drain of moral outrage that 99% of complainants did. For the record, I thought it was beyond tasteless, but I also think it was a set-up; certainly the whole thing had been flagged up in the episode prior. I was tiring of Brand’s rhetoric in any case – the Cockney gentleman schtick only goes so far. Ross is a far more accomplished broadcaster and a piece of my BBC podcast jigsaw I have yet to fill. But, dear reader, and I hope soon, listener (of my recommendations, not of me….yet), this is all far to UK-centric. I want to introduce those of you not yet familiar with the work of Ira Glass to TAL…..This American Life. The formula is simple – take a related theme and build an hour of radio around it each week. Sometimes the show is dedicated to one story, sometimes to four or five.

In the three years or more that I’ve been listening to TAL, I’ve come to understand that Ira Glass is something of a legend; the apparent ease with which the show is put together led me to believe that anyone could do this…even me. One show had a stunning story about a confusing parental situation, put together by Ruby Wright, an Englishwoman. Her web address was given at the end, so I looked her up and sent her a mail. Would you mind meeting me? Of course not, I’m playing a gig in Islington tonight, come down. Sure, why not?

Ruby is way more talented and dynamic than I. We talked for 20 minutes or so, and she pointed out that she’d been involved in radio for a long time, cutting her teeth with the Beeb of all people and she was still struggling to get pieces to air – but most of all, the story of her dysfunctional parents being aired on TAL was a highlight and she left me in no doubt that Ira Glass is a rare talent.

I had a critical failure of my computer at the end of last year – and TAL only allow the free download of their latest podcast, although you can purchase the back catalogue from their website, or stream them for free. So I currently have about 20 episodes backed up. Will They Know Me Back Home about soldiers on the front line facing a return to “normality” is stunning, whilst Starting From Scratch is tender warm and inspiring. The titles are never obtuse or oblique….they do what they say on the tin. Search This American Life on iTunes and learn something about our liberal cousins across the pond.

Sexism In Iraqi Kurdistan – Part 1

Following on from last week’s musings….

Considerably less “refreshed” than I was when I wrote my initial post on this subject, I’ve been mulling over the evening that started me thinking about the role and rights of women in Kurdistan. Whilst there are still reports of female genital mutilation and honour killings, I wanted to focus on the surface of the issue to begin with. What I have seen so far. I’m sure as I learn more about the place I will learn about the darker side to Iraqi Kurdistan, just as there is a darker side to all countries and regions of the world. However, until I see those goblins, I won’t try to imagine them.

I made the comment “I’d wager women are treated better here” in the Intro piece. I’m pleased no bookies took my money, because it was a statement of ignorance – I don’t know if women are treated better or worse than in the UK. Besides the cultures are very different, and I’m sure misogyny wears incomparable masks.

I met with Tony, a Baghdadi Christian, for a few drinks in the Sulemani Palace Hotel bar. He had a nargila, whilst I stuck to my Gauloises. We had a few beers, and after he’d twisted my (very maleable) arm into having a tequila, he said that he wanted to show me a place in Sarchenar, a well-off district 15 minutes away by taxi. “What sort of place?” “Somewhere where they have live singing, we can have a beer or two,” was his reply. And that is exactly what is was.

A three storey Chinese establishment, filled entirely with men, excepting the female singer on each floor and the waitresses.

We sat at a table next to a group of four men, two in a high state of excitement. The entertainment was provided by a man on keyboards, sometimes vocally backing an undeniably beautiful singer. There were about 30 men in the room, and to begin with it was mostly calm. As the tempo began to rise, so did the spirits of the audience. It was around this time that men started beckoning the singer to their tables, and requesting a “shout-out” for the price of 5,000 dinars (about £3). Pretty raunchy behaviour in this conservative society – in my mind at the time I was thinking of parallels in the UK. Specifically, lap dances. My pissed reasoning was that women are treated with greater respect here, in this case at least. I’m still not straight in my mind about this….any thoughts?

Updated – I Don’t Know Much About Art

I was watching a natural history programme the other evening; of the type where the out-of-his-comfort-zone Westerner is constantly amazed by the survival skills of the people who’ve lived in the area in question for hundreds of generations. In amongst the subtly patronising comments and sweeping vistas so essential to such a chunk of television (North Greenland in this instance), invariably we are invited to be revolted by the base nature of their eating habits. Bruce, our host, was offered the eyeball of a recently dispatched seal. Whilst it didn’t appear to be valued as a delicacy, it was apparent that one of the Inuit hunters was giving up something he considered special. Bruce didn’t hesitate, and sucked the contents of the eyeball down. And with it, he balled his eyes up, retched a little and generally made sure that his hosts knew what he thought of their little treat. I’ve had dinner guests like that, but I was asking them to appreciate my chicken curry, and they could reasonably have expected their meal to have been edible.

Serve up seal eyeballs to a restaurant critic at any NY restaurant, and (unless they are Anthony Bourdain or suffering from the most serious case of Emperor’s New Clothes) the resulting review will be unfavourable at best, a simple cartoon of spluttering Bruce at worst. You’re wondering what the fuck I’m on about, so perhaps I should cut to the chase; different people like different things, and this is the only truth about art.

Take the case of Damien Hirst. Much like my dinner guests anticipated that eating my food would not lead to prolonged visits to the bathroom, I was expecting the recent Damien Hirst No Love Lost, Blue Paintings exhibition to be challenging and witty. Unfortunately they were mediocre pastiches of Francis Bacon, as if copied for a high school art project. This was compounded by the fact that Hirst had spent a small fortune persuading the Wallace Collection to show the pieces. That these paintings are his own work, rather than the product of his workshops, is telling. The work preceding was the spectacular For The Love Of God; maybe he set the bar too high? The work after is the very similar For Heaven’s Sake which smacks of desperation. Oh, Damien, how confusing. And then, in early June, I was given a glimpse into his new project. Half of me wishes I could share (by the time this is in print you may already have seen the painful fruits of his latest work), but the other half is genuinely excited to have had an “in” before not only most of the world, but the majority of the art world. The project that he is involved in with several other names finally moves the Banksy commercial question into a challenging new direction, something the wall dauber has consistently failed to do. This critic’s mind’s-eye sees the quality graph of his recent portfolio as a heartbeat monitor – at least he isn’t flat lining. But this is all my opinion. Art is subjective, you and I can like what we want. And art critics sometimes forget that.

Robert Mapplethorpe was able to divide opinion like almost no other. In the 1980s it seemed every accessible published word was written by the shocked moral majority; the same breed that delights in taking offence at issues large and small in the 2010s, Twittering horror, emailing outrage and registering digital disgust. It’s true that the photography of Mapplethorpe was challenging, and some of the later work, especially of children, flirted with the very boundaries of decency. However, unless one actively seeks out this work alone, stumbling across the nudes is highly unlikely. Many people will have seen his touching portraits of Patti Smith and developed an understanding of his work as a whole, rather than being wilfully upset by the homoerotic images. I was in San Francisco at Fulsom Fair time, a couple of years ago. There with work for a conference on marine fuels (yes folks, some of us have lived the dream, tasted true manna), three of my colleagues decided to go to the fair; middle-class, straight white girls from London off to gawp and point and whisper at the strange gay men. I declined the invitation to go, as I don’t approve of zoos, human or otherwise. They returned ashen-faced and faux-corrupted. I asked them what they had expected, “Well, not that”, was the reply. Within three minutes, there were 3 digital cameras in front of me, accompanied by a commentary of all the disgusting and vile acts committed in public – all looked like fucking good fun, literally. My opinion was completely different to theirs, but was torn apart as invalid. As the evening wore on, more drink taken, I lost my patience. “Don’t tell me what to think,” was my petulant response, starting in motion an untenable situation that led to my eventual resignation. To be told how to respond to anything – art, life, anything – is to assume a lack of intelligence, a lack of sense. Or, worse, it is the arrogant belief that the critic’s subjective opinion is the only one worth considering.

Jeff Koons’s self-portrait photographs with his then lover, Cicciolina are far less shocking to me than his ambiguous sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles. My mother, my nephew and a legion of fans will most certainly see it through different lenses. No doubt some people see the epic seascapes painted by JMW Turner in his later years as the daubings of a near-blind, over-praised old man – I have sat for an age in front of just one painting, endlessly intrigued by this brush-stroke taking wave to cloud, questioning whether the brilliance of painting with failing sight can be regarded as the true beginning of Impressionism.

You’ll have to excuse me for a slightly UK-centric look at what must be a global occurrence, but such is my frame of reference. We have an annual art award, The Turner Prize, which never fails to get the more reactionary mainstream press hitting the “be outraged” key for the chattering classes. Over the years the media used by nominees has included elephant dung (Chris Ofili); concrete (Rachel Whiteread’s internal cast of a house); bronze (the Chapman Brothers’ Death which was painted to look like the blow up dolls and dildo that they had cast); a bed (Tracey Emin); and pottery (Grayson Perry). Not, “provocateurs” Chapman Brothers. Not, “shocking” Tracey Emin. Not, “challenging” Grayson Perry. I’ll be the one to decide how provoked, shocked or challenged I am by a piece of art.

The best critics, those that I look up to and hope to emulate (rip-off, plagiarise, imitate, fail to get near to) have forthright opinions that they present to and not foist upon readers – let’s face it, as consumers of their words readers are unlikely to need to be told what to think. Just by being attracted to an article of this nature, the reader is demonstrating a certain intelligence or at least an inquisitive mind – only a pseud needs telling what to think. One critic who often, but not always, pulls off the feat of presenting and not foisting is Jonathon Jones, in the UK’s Guardian newspaper ( The joy of his writing is that anyone can comment – he defends his position, sometimes as an elegant fencer, epee-ing contributors easily. At others times, he snarls and swipes like a cornered tiger. He doesn’t always win, but he never shies away from a fight. I’d suggest searching for his May 2011 article on Mark Leckey. Not only does he defend his current opinion, he also (quite remarkably) has to defend his right to change his mind.

However, even those who like to think they live outside “the system” or recognised art establishment aren’t immune to shouting their opinions at us. Protests about the Turner Prize are not limited to the playfully ignorant press. Happily, this is done with a wit and knowingness that words alone cannot convey. Banksy had one of his finer moments when he stencilled “Mind The Crap” on the steps of the Tate before the prize-giving one year; something which might have already come back to haunt him, in the derivative, dull and ultimately pointless Exit Through The Gift Shop, may mark him down as a hypocrite as he expressed a desire to support his nomination at this year’s Oscars ceremony, or perhaps it’s one more example of his searingly post-modern criticism of art. You decide.

We’re all someone’s child

Osama Bin Laden is dead. Rumours are that Margret Thatcher is dying (this may be some grim Twitter hoax). Seve, Henry Cooper. People die, our mortality is reinforced. Our reaction to this is one of deep and understandable sympathy to the families of the lost. Or rabid, revolting celebration. As Jessica Dovey says, “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”