More Congo reading

Two more for the springboard reading list. Jeff suggested Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Memoir of a Boy soldier. There’s an interesting controversy about this. The newspaper The Australian claims that the events described in the book happen two years later than Beah says they did. This would mean he was fifteen, not thirteen. While still very young, he wouldn’t then meet the UN definition of a “child soldier”. There are various conflicting sources on it, and you can read Beah’s response of you search for it. To me though, the points about the Australian’s claim is that they don’t mention any inaccuracy other than his age. Is there anything else which isn’t true? If not, it’s still a useful book despite not strictly being a “child” soldier’s memoir.

Secondly, the evidence they give seems to revolve around “evidence is available on the internet…” which, without anything concrete, doesn’t do much for me.  It does seem that there is room for a question mark over the book though.

Next book – Barbara Kingsolver,  The Poisonwood Bible, about missionaries in 1960s Congo. It is mentioned in Tim Butcher’s book – so it would be impermissible to ignore such a direct link in the chain! After that I think I’ll try to break out of the Congo, since the whole idea was to read as widely as possible.

Live and Learn

When I started the Springboard Reading project, I didn’t really expect it to bear fruit so quickly. About 3 weeks into 2008, I know exponentially more about the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That isn’t hard – in honesty, I didn’t know a lot about it before that anyway. Anyway, today I read this:

A peace pact has been signed in Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo by the government and armed groups…

It aims to end months of bloody conflict in the east which has driven almost 500,000 people from their homes.

Anneke van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch said the historic agreement should allow thousands of people displaced from their villages in the last year to return home.

But Africa analyst Muzong Kodi at Chatham House in London was more pessimistic.

“The underlying problem is the resource war and if any of the groups disband other groups are going to replace them,” [he said].

The last one is the killer – literally. One of the tragedies of the Congo is not impoverishment, strictly speaking. I recently read a Kenyan aid worker in D.R. Congo speaking about it. In his own country the problem was poor soil and drought – here there was rain and rich, rich soil, but many of the same problems existed because of purely social and political problems.

It’s one of the most bountiful places on Earth for other things too: first rubber was the big thing. Then there were diamonds, cobalt, copper, coltan (a substance far more widely known than its name. Ever used a DVD player? cell phone? Playstation?) – which all have been extracted by less-than-pleasant chaps for the past century-and-a-bit.

So my head is inclined to go with the pessimists, I’m afraid. All the ingredients for a successfully derailed peace settlement are right there.

Commenting on Blogs

I don’t frequently comment on many blogs – usually only when I read something particularly interesting. The best blog posts I have read have been ones where a lot of discussion has followed the initial post. Very rarely does it stay entirely within the subject of the first post, but for the most part it does.

Sometimes I wonder how people feel when this happens. It’s a public forum in a sense, because it’s being publicly published. But it’s different from a kind of message board, in that it is someone’s “house” to an extent. Sometimes I lapse into read-only mode because I don’t want to wade in and seem to be taking over even when I’d love to whale into the discussion! I’ve seen some bloggers who love it when lively debate and fast-flying discussion hang on the coat-tails of one of their posts, and some who get a tad miffed about it when contrary views appear.

To what extent is a blog a public space like a market square of old, and to what extent is it someone’s living room?

So we’re off on the 2008 Reading Challenge. I’m off the springboard and it’s juddering in the air behind me as I plunge into the pool for the first length. Following on from The Mission Song dealing with the bloody truth behind geopolitics as it influences the Congo, today I picked up Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, by Tim Butcher.

Butcher sets out to follow the footsteps of Henry Morgan Stanley along the Congo River to the Atlantic. Hopefully I’ll have a better knowledge of the Congo by the end of it. I have to admit, The Daily Telegraph’s Africa man wouldn’t be my first port of call for information on the continent, but I’m sure I’ll learn something new from it. Like the fact that Stanley was also a Daily Telegraph reporter, and it was they who sent him off on the trip. Anyway, no further details yet, as I’ve just bought the book!

While I was reading last night (The Mission Song, John le Carre) I daydreamed my way into a reading project for the year. Springboard reading.

In essence, it goes like this. Once I have read a book, I pick up one of the things touched on in it and follow it up with the next book I read. The link can be as tenuous as can be – the setting, the protagonist’s job, a philosophical theme, a style of music – and the follow-on book can be fiction or non-fiction.

So for instance, I’ve finished The Mission Song now. I now have to find a book on, in or about Africa or Congolese history. Or one with a hero who is an interpreter. Or maybe something else. Think of it as a book version of browsing the web – after a few aimless clicks you may end up with something completely different.

The point? Well, the first is to see where I end up in my reading journey. The second is to read books about things I may never otherwise have done, and to learn about lots of strange and wonderful new things, places and people. If I get really stuck I’ll start a new chain, but the goal is to keep the chain up for the whole year.

Each time I add a link to the chain I’m going to record it here. I’m looking forward to this!

Link 1: The Mission Song, John le Carre [Africa, Congo, interpreting, civil war, conscience].

The Guardian can be very educational. Today for example, I found out that

“Vomiting virus closes hospital wards”.

I didn’t even know that viruses could vomit.

Snow joke, you know!

Last night, it snowed here in Ireland. Well, I say ‘snowed’ – at the minute, there’s a light dusting of powder on the hedges and trees, and about an inch on the ground. I can still see grass in some spots. (If you want to see the kind of snow I’m talking about, have a look at this blog.) We rarely get snow here, though – perhaps 3 or 4 days every year – and you wouldn’t believe the havoc that accompanies it. There are car crashes, panics, people phone work saying they won’t be able to get in – although that’s possibly just a bit of entrepreneurial spirit taking advantage of the situation.

My boss (may he ever prosper) phoned me not long ago and told me to take the day off, so I’m feeling quite chipper!

I was thinking how my friends in New England would laugh at our Irish ‘snow’. When I lived there, life went on as normal through 2′ of the stuff. Snow ploughs would be out at the first flake. There was a parking lot right across the street from me which was plowed every night, and the guy always lowered the plow too far. I’d be kept up all night by iron scraping against asphalt. The nifty ridges left in the tarmac taught me how the machines got their name – it looked just like a ploughed field!

Everyone would get a shovel out and clear the pavement in front of their house. There would be a path in the snow wide enough for one person to pass through, with a waist-high wall of snow on either side. It was fun when you met someone walking the other way and had to negotiate a way past. I also remember the reassuring signs around the centre of Boston telling you to beware of falling chunks of ice as it began to thaw. I came within a foot of being sent on my merry way by one such lump. Snow? We don’t know the half of it.

What worried me more last night was the lightning. One bolt was so close I was left deaf for a couple of minutes, and the entire bedroom was lit up like midday in summer. A few towns had power losses too. I quite like thunderstorms, but not when they fuck with my eardrums!

Anyway. I couldn’t go on about snow in Ireland without giving the master his due place, so here is a word from my mate James.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.

Sure, you know the rest yourself!

Tomorrow will be the fourth day of January, and I’m beginning to wonder when people will stop saying “Happy new year” to me. Still, mustn’t grumble. I’m trying to no longer take a perverse delight in being grumpy, but it ain’t easy!

And as for this New Year’s Resolution business – as good as it is to change things for the better, is it really a good idea to start the new year off by effectively reminding yourself of all the things you did badly last year?

Current reading – Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost and other stories. Poor old Oscar. During his life he got the rough end of the stick for his sexuality. Now, in these more accepting times, he gets quite a lot of sympathy and admiration for that. In both eras though the same blind spot remains – people can’t see past his sexuality and think it’s the only facet of his existence. As King Neptune is to the sea, King Oscar is to the essence of gayness. Or something. Odd how the same thing has blinded people to his work from polar opposite positions!

Music and Suicide

Meg Gardiner brings up the question of country music and a statistical connection to suicide. I’d heard of this phenomenon a lot of years ago, but it got me thinking. When I was a teenager, there was the whole fiasco about backwards messages in some heavy rock music. I remember, in particular, a court case involving the band Judas Priest having a case brought against them by the parents of someone who shot himself and his friend. Supposedly, there were Satanic messages which led people to commit murder and suicide.

So, the question is, why this interest in whether certain types of music lead to suicide, rather than (to pick anything at random) an interest in chess, fly fishing or learning candle-making?

Is it the old suspicion that there’s something dark in music and the arts in general? Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads and Vivaldi selling his soul to become the world’s greatest violinist are perhaps myths reflecting a certain puritanical sensibility still strongly rooted in our society. In more than one religion around the world, art is seen as suspect – seductive, false and idolatrous. Perhaps the obsession with whether music leads to suicide is part of that strong cultural thread – just a more secular modern version.

I don’t know. It’s interesting though.

Way back when…

Another one for the folk music collection. The singer is Luke Kelly, one of the real giants of Irish folk music. The voice is unmistakable. Luke is also notable for being one of the only people ever to have a ginger afro. Hit the play button, do something else and leave it on in the background or surf away. But listen to the words – if I had to give an example of ‘black humour’ this might well be it.

It was performed back in the ’60s, as some of the words illustrate. Back before people in Ireland forgot how to raise a dissenting voice!