Thursday, 11 December 2014

My book list 2014

I find it frustrating that I read books, only to forget the title and author. The plot becomes muddy and any recommendations to my friends become guess work. To combat this I am now going to keep a book list. This is what I read in 2014. Agree with what I have to say?

Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd
A gripping journey through London’s underworld. Adam Kindred, an otherwise respectable scientist, witnesses a murder and then goes on the run from a hitman and the police. Previously invisible people become Adam's friends; prostitutes, addicts, illegal immigrants and religious fanatics. I could really picture Adam amongst the people I saw when I cycling through London.  9/10.

A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, Paul Therroux
Atmospheric account of author, Jerry Delfont, struggling in vain against his writer's block whilst living in Calcutta. Jerry becomes obsessed with a mysterious, tantric, wealthy US woman in Calcutta whilst investigating the appearance of a child’s hand in her son’s friend’s room. The main character is annoying, the plot a little predictable and the sex scenes are terribly written. 5/10.

Animal Farm, George Orwell.
20th century classic that, surprisingly, I was never forced to read at school.  A parody of the Russian revolution, animals overthrow their farmer master aiming to create an egalitarian society. Rather predictability things get rapidly worse. Very sharp characterisations. Wish I had read it earlier. 8/10.

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now - as Told by Those Who Love it, Hate it, Live it, Left it and Long for it, Craig Taylor.
Exactly what it says on the tin; an oral history from a cross section of London. Allowed me to reflect on my own experiences in London before I left it. A book to dip in and out of. 7/10.

An Ice Cream War, William Boyd.
Yet another great book from my favorite contemporary author. A black comedy that focuses on the fight between British and German forces in East Africa. A series of characters on both sides of the conflict intertwine. Historically interesting, wickedly funny. 8/10.

Down and Out in Paris in London, George Orwell.
A memoir of George Orwell’s time living on the breadline in Paris and London in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Orwell obviously cared about the plight of the working classes but his situation in both cities seems improbable and a little bit like poverty tourism. 6/10.

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson
An unlikely but very amusing story of Allan Karlson, a hundred year old man who escaped from his nursing home and embarks on an adventure running from both the Swedish police and gangsters with a suitcase of money intended for a drugs deal. Through flashbacks we learn about Allan’s run ins with various major events and people from the 20th century. Forest Gump but much much better. 10/10.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, Sue Townsend
A light hearted comedy by the author of Adrian Mole. Eva, a world weary house wife takes to bed for a year, inviting in a harem of carers, followers and admirers. A simple page turner with an array of well observed characters. Unfortunately it is hard to warm to the central character and her course of action, leading to an increasing sense of frustration as the book nears its end. 7/10.

The Time Travellers Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
Glorified chic lit about the relationship between Henry, a time traveller, and his long suffering wife Clare. Clare has to contend with prolonged periods of absence and unpredictability of her husband’s disappearances. Emotionally deep, sometimes straying into emotionally trite. 6/10.

Heligoland: The True Story of German Bight and the Island That Britain Forgot, George Drower
A focused history about Heligoland, a weather beaten rock in the North Sea. Once an unloved British colony, it was traded with Germany for Zanzibar and territorial concessions is East Africa. Interesting how one little island played such a big part in the scramble for Africa, the course of WWI and the British search for the atomic bomb. 7/10.

We Need to Talk about Kevin,  Lionel Shriver
Mid naughties cult read. Eva writes to her husband about the childhood of Kevin, her son and high school mass murderer. A thought provoking but uncomfortable read that upsets as well as entertains. 8/10.

The Heart of Darkiness, Jopseph Conrad
Early 20th century novel that is the inspiration for Apocolypse Now. Charles Marlow gives an account of his experiences as an ivory transporter in Belgium Congo. Seen as a book that gets across the horrors of colonialism, but also one that perpetrates the idea of African people being “other”.  6/10.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Settling in

Hot, sticky, dark and, when I finally found the light switch, surprisingly big. These were my first jet lagged impressions of the flat late last Tuesday night. Our new home. Flat 308, The Arts Centre, Mantin, Malaysia. That was the moment it sunk in. This is real.

Having first decided to emigrate in February, August’s move to Malaysia always felt like a far off theoretical concept. It loomed somewhere in the distance, to be dealt with at a later date.  “London living” seemed to be more immediate, predictable and important. My cycle to work, the ten o’clock banana, lunch break, three o’clock tea and the rush for the office door at the earliest socially acceptable time;  this was the rhythm of my life. Malaysia was always well after a work deadline, a birthday, a weekend away or wedding planning. There was always something more immediate until, on 1 August there wasn’t, my new nephew was born and then the only red letter day was the flight.

After being dropped of at the flat we made vague attempts unpack and make the place look presentable. Neither of us knew what to do or where to start. That night I slept restlessly in two chunks, my body not being able to process the loss of seven hours and my mind wondering what I had got myself in for. The white washed walls looked empty and alien and I was reminded of similarly sterile walls and miserable evenings in Accra. This was not home. Even Lucy next to me did not seem the same Lucy I was talking to in London.  Somehow, everything that was once firm and solid seemed to shift.

Opening the curtains in the morning, we had our first glance at the outside world, a turquoise blue swimming pool and tennis courts sandwiched between playing fields. Behind our accommodation block is the school itself, an array of long colonial style blocks linked by covered by pan tile walkways.  Perhaps on reflection, there are certainly worse places to end up. Certainly a little different to my living arrangements in Ghana.

The school at the moment is very quiet, only being populated by administrative staff, the new teachers and senior management. It is hard to imagine what it will be like when 700 hundred boarders turn up this Sunday. I think we are all looking forward to their arrival so life can take on some form of routine. That said, the gradual introduction to school and Malaysia has been most welcome. We have been given the opportunity to explore the school ourselves, use the array of sporting facilities and get to know the local area. Little by little what was alien is starting to become more familiar. Thanks to the arrival of our shipping from the UK, and various forays into Kuala Lumpur, Tesco and Ikea, the flat now feels like home. We have also seemed to have settled into a good social scene, with a number of friendly faces only too ready to invite you out for dinner.

As you will see from the photos below the grounds are gorgeous, if a little quiet. 

Thursday, 21 March 2013


Great article I just stumbled on about the "white-savior industrial complex". It is a little out of date, but it really gets to grip with some of my misgivings about voluntourism. Also, how refreshing to hear from an African not western voice.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Jumping on the bandwagon

Following the announcement of Princess Catherine's pregnancy in early December, Kate mania is sweeping the nation once again. You can't avoid stories about her, her baby and her dodgy portrait. Whilst it is true to say that she never really left the limelight (she has a virtual monopoly on The Daily Telegraph front page from what I can tell), the last time she had quite so much coverage was in 2011 in the lead up to royal wedding. Back then I was in a sweltering Ghanaian office typing away on my laptop listening to all the updates on the BBC World service.

In a blatant attempt to jump on the bandwagon, I think the announcement of a new royal is a reasonable hook to republish my article that appeared in Ghana's Daily Chronicle on the day of the wedding. Much like this post, it uses one event as a pretext to talk about another, in this case to talk about the human rights record of The Commonwealth. The article considers which heads of state would be attending the wedding ceremony and their suspect human rights records. I picked out King Mswati of Swaziland, partly because he is Africa's last absolute monarch, but also because he rules a country that I  know a bit about having worked there for a short period. 

It is strange to think how much things have changed for some since the 2011. I am writing this post from underneath duvet in a cold Brixton house whilst the nation waits for a new heir to the throne. However, rather depressingly, human rights and the relevance of the Commonwealth are arguably worse than they were when I wrote the article 18 months ago. Swaziland still does not elect its leaders, Uganda persecutes its homosexuals and Nigeria, like Mali to its north, is rocked by terrorism and counter terrorism. Is anyone more optimistic than I am?

Royal Wedding List
Everyone loves a wedding, especially a royal one. The BBC estimate that 2 billion people from across the world will tune in today to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton exchange vows at Westminster Abbey. Yet the guest list for the wedding is causing a controversy. Obama didn’t make the guest list yet every head of state of the Commonwealth’s 54 members received a special invite. Leaders from even tiny islands like St Lucia and Montserrat will wine and dine with the world’s elite. But what really is the point of the Commonwealth beyond adding exotic costumes and colour to the pomp and circumstance? 

It’s a question that I frequently asked myself when I decided to uproot from the UK and take up a position with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Accra. In all honesty, I didn’t know a great deal about the association except that it was made up of former members of the British Empire and I also knew that it held an athletics tournament every four years. Now… months later conversations with Ghanaian friends convince me that little is still known about this still functioning international association of 54 countries – 19 of them in Africa. Certainly the nearly 2 billion people of the Commonwealth, the majority of them living on less than $2 a day have no clue about the glamorous wedding or the glittering invitation list.

The Commonwealth was initially created as an attempt to preserve the links between Britain and its former colonies. However once the Commonwealth moved from being a ‘whites only’ club to including members of the ‘new Commonwealth’ like Ghana, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Nigeria it needed to articulate common fundamental principles which in the absence of geographic cohesion like the EU or a common purpose like NATO would allow it to hang together. Repeated solemn declarations reaffirming the centrality of human rights and democracy seemed to place upholding human rights at the pivot around which it would function. Indeed its vociferous lead in fighting apartheid were a unifying mission that provided the Commonwealth its hay day and expulsion of overt military dictatorships like Nigeria, Fiji and Pakistan gave it teeth. Unfortunately today the Commonwealth has stopped playing the role which it carved out for itself. Many of the Commonwealth heads of state who will be attending Friday’s wedding are overseeing regimes with dismal human rights records. For instance King Mswati III of Swaziland, an autocratic king of a country with no political parties, will fly out to the UK from southern Africa having just suppressed one of the country’s largest peaceful pro-democracy marches.

It is true that the Commonwealth has continued to promote democracy in its member states by providing electoral observers and advisors, as it did most recently in Nigeria. It also true that it continues to hold workshops on human rights and the best ways to implement them. Only last week, Mauritius hosted six other African members of the Commonwealth, including Ghana who met to discuss how to implement the recommendations they received from the UN when under periodic review in 2008 and 2009. The real problem is that the Commonwealth seems unwilling and unable to punish wayward members who show blatant disregard for international human rights law. Whilst in the past minority governed South Africa was excluded and Nigeria was suspended in 1995 after the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa, today an autocratic regime and police repression in Swaziland goes on without comment.

As happened in North Africa, protests in Swaziland began about rising food prices and falling wages. However, with time attitudes have hardened and calls for political reform have been made. Journalists currently seem to lump protests in repressive countries together. Many who haven’t been to Swaziland, a small mountainous kingdom surrounded by South Africa on three sides and Mozambique to the east, want to group it with the “Arabian Spring”; a long serving incumbent, repressive police and an impoverished youth. The situation in Swaziland is different. The majority of the protesters are not pushing for an overthrow of the king, rather an end to the 38 years of autocratic rule and a return to constitutional democracy. The Swazi government mandated a ten percent cut in civil service salaries as the King was granted an extra $6 million in his annual allowance, yet King Mswati is still largely popular. Although 70% of the population live on less than 1 dollar a day many Swazis still speak warmly of King Mswati’s stabilising influence and his role in upholding Swazi culture. On my last visit, street traders in Manzini and Mbabane still did a brisk trade in fabric adorned with King Mswati’s face. 

On the 18th of April, the 38th anniversary of the banning of political parties by King Mswati’s father King Sobuzha II protests took place. Students, trade unionists and members of banned political parties took to the streets of Manzini to call for the resignation of the current government and a return to party politics. The King responded by declaring the demonstration illegal and ordering the police were to break up the protesters with water cannons and a spate of arbitrary arrests. Civil rights protesters allege that they are coming under increasing pressure from the country’s security apparatus and Mcolisi Ngcamphalala, of the Swaziland Youth Congress said he was held and tortured by police for 24 hours.

Swaziland is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees the right to hold opinions without interference the right to freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. It also committed itself to the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration which guaranteed human rights and the right for people to frame the society in which he or she lives. These rights are being systematically denied by Mswati and the Commonwealth has a duty to bring Swaziland back into line. 

King Mswati
However instead of condemnation the Commonwealth has at best remained silent, at worst it has been cozying up to King Mswati. Queen Elizabeth II as the formal head of The Commonwealth will welcome King Mswati to the royal wedding, whilst Kamalesh Sharma the current Secretary General has failed to mention the situation in Swaziland, despite last week being less than 100 kilometres away in neighbouring Mozambique. It is perhaps more embarrassing that Sharma’s predecessor, Don McKinnon, accepted an award from King Mswati for his work on the 2005 constitution which still left 1.2 million Swazis with no political parties or genuine democratic choice. 

If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant and understood it must begin to practice what it preaches. If it is truly committed to human rights and democracy it must insist on member states like Swaziland acting as if the standards the Commonwealth has given itself really matter. Otherwise it will remain an ghostly remnant of some half forgotten dream of what might have been in people’s minds only coming to prominence at British royal weddings and at the next Commonwealth games.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Scandinavia from the back of a car

I have always imagined a business trip to be a glamorous activity; crunch meetings with powerful people followed by a cigar, celebratory drinks and a pretty air hostess. Perhaps I was thinking of an 80’s cliché, but the real thing has always been a little disappointing. They tend to involve a powerpoint presentation in the west country followed by questionable food and itchy motel sheets. No glamour and certainly no chance of exploring a different city.

Even when I have ventured somewhere more exotic things have tended to be a bit of a let-down. Take for instance my trip to San Francisco a few years ago; on the flight out I was in a prime seat behind a child vomiting and overlooking the wing as it was struck by lightning. I spent the subsequent two days of my weekend in a conference centre not seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, not riding the trams and not walking along Fisherman’s Wharf before coming down with flu on the plane back.

I had fairly grounded expectations therefore when I took my first business trip to Copenhagen and Stockholm earlier this week. Scandinavia has long been a place I wanted to visit and I was already booked for a short holiday in Oslo this coming weekend. Being tall, blonde and having grown up with an overactive imagination close to York, the capital of the Viking kingdom of Danelaw, I consider the region to be, somehow, part of my origins. Whilst the two days shadowing my boss in meetings didn’t allow me much time to get a feel for my ancestral homeland I did, however, manage to gain some skin deep first impressions. To my surprise it turned out to be a rather good trip.

We were picked up in Copenhagen by Chris, a wiry middle aged man who spoke impeccable English with an American lilt. He had been arranged by the organising broker to chauffer us between our three back-to-back meetings and then back to the airport for our flight to Stockholm. I was eager to look professional in front of my boss so I kept the conversation to a minimum; I got a basic language run through before returning to my notes and the view from the back of the black saloon.

There was snow on the ground and the weather outside was murky. The ride from the airport into town was grey and it was only when we reached the warehouses along the waterfront that the city started to come to life. Copenhagen appears to be clean and crisp with understated red brick architecture. It is evidently prosperous but, unlike the imperial boulevards of Paris or London, it is not trying to make a big deal about it.  Close to the centre there are a number of icy lakes apparently, according to Chris, clean enough to swim in during the summer months. Although I only saw it from an air-conditioned car and offices I liked Copenhagen and I will be back.

If Copenhagen was cold, Stockholm was freezing. In the UK we talk of weather being “too cold to snow”, which I can assure you is complete crap. Stockholm was both “too cold” and snowy. After checking into the waterfront Radisson Hotel I shuffled, slipped and fell my way towards Restaurang Richemore for some exceptional Swedish cracker bread followed by warming meatballs. At ten pounds a pint I avoided alcohol and stuck to water.
Looking out from the Radisson in Stockholm
I woke on Tuesday to BBC news and events unfolding in Mali. Africa, the usual subject of my writing, was utterly unreal at that moment. Outside was a blizzard and it seemed somehow impossible the humanity can survive in such different environmnents. But survive it does. Indeed Stockholm thrives on the cold weather; with the exception of a train that a cleaner had taken for a joy ride the night before, public transport still ran and the cyclists still pressed on. We were picked up by a female driver who cheerfully talked us through the town’s highlights as she peered through the snow filled sky and took us to the first of our four meetings.

The city is a series of 14 islands and, unsuprisingly, fish features heavily in the local cuisine.  Usually on roadshows food is only consumed at snatched intervals but on this trip we were invited to a lunch meeting at the upmarket WedHolms Fish restaurant. WedHolms is where the well heeled Swedish gent goes to eat and be seen. It is not hard to see why.  I am not a massive fish lover, but what was on offer was tasty; no fancy tricks, just well cooked simple food. Between writing minutes and diverting questions to my far more knowledgeable boss, I managed to work my way through a pickled herring starter and salmon with Hollandaise sauce for main.

Much like the day before, I make the majority of my impressions from the car, but I did get an hour to walk through the historic centre of the city before my flight. In the newer parts of the city there is a bustle on the pavements as people go about their business. The broad stone clad streets are full of people wrapped up against the elements. In Gamla Stan the pace is slower. The narrow yellow painted streets that lead up to the cathederal are deserted. I saw a couple of Americans trying on a Viking helmet at a souvenir shop but otherwise I seemed to be the only one out sightseeing. Perhaps, unlike the Swedes battling blizzards on their bikes, the less hardy  foreigners come back when the snow melts?

Old Stockholm
Inside the Cathederal
So what have I learnt? The Scandinavians are a hardy bunch and no, business trips still aren’t all that glamorous -but they can be a hell of a lot better than powerpoint and flu! Can you really get to know a place on a business trip? Well, no, but you can get one hell of a first glance. It has whetted my appetite to start exploring Scandinavia in my own time.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Homesickness on Lake Volta

Something that I submitted for the Just Back travel writing competition about my experiences in Ghana...
Obruni, Obruni!” I turn my attention away from the swallows skimming the water and back onto the shoreline. The culprits, two boys, stifle giggles as I catch their gaze. I smile and wave as they shuffle on their feet. “Eti sen!” I greet them. Startled by my well-rehearsed response they let out two excitable squeals and scamper up the bank back towards their mother on a nearby food stall, usually it would make me laugh, but today, being a white man in Ghana feels wearisome.
It is late afternoon and my legs are dangling over the side of the boat as I wait for it to fill. There is a storm gathering in the west and having arrived in the morning, I was hoping to be in Donkorkom on the other side of Lake Volta by now. Instead, I am in a scruffy port just outside of Kapandu, increasingly despondent about my chances of staying dry.
Before the construction of the Akosombo hydroelectric dam in 1965, a journey between the two towns could be undertaken by road. They are now separated by the world’s largest man-made lake. Unlike Accra, which hums with electricity, life on the edge of the water is marginal and slow. The climate and soil quality, once able to support vast cocoa plantations, has worsened and the majority of the locals eke out a living growing and selling vegetables. Close to the boat, a few stallholders idly observe the lake. There are few customers for Yam and Red-Red today.
The coming gloom is offset by a series of lush conical islands which rise up from the middle of the lake. Closer to shore are the skeletal remains of submerged trees, around them weave swallows hunting for mosquitos. It is October, I wonder are these the same birds that I saw in my boyhood summers in North Yorkshire? After six months working in Accra, I am drawn to the thought of home.
The boat slowly fills as I ponder. I am initially joined by a woman with a child swaddled to her back, shortly followed by a group of boys hauling tubs of tilapia. As we near departure the tranquillity of the afternoon is broken. Hawkers appear around the boat offering phone credit, drinks and fried plantain. Each has their own cry. “Yes pure! Pure water!” comes the nearby call of a girl selling chlorinated water sachets from a cool box. I buy one, rip off the corner with my mouth and gulp. It tastes truly awful. I grimace and the man next to me smiles.
“Kwabena”, he interjects, offering his hand. My eyes are immediately drawn to Asante markings on his cheeks. His accent is softened by several years living in the UK and after an inevitable conversation about English football I ask Kwabena why he shunned the bright lights of London or Accra and instead decided to settle in Donkorkom. He pauses, smiles and says “I missed it. It’s where I am from. It’s my home”.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Welcome, again!

The most eagled eyed amongst you may have noticed that my posts about my battle with dizziness and restless search for the road to recovery have been removed from this blog. They now have their own designated home at www.dizzytimes.co.uk.
If you want to continue to read about my thoughts about travel, Africa and, well, pretty much anything that pops into my head, please keep checking www.lifecommentary.co.uk. In the mean time please follow me on twitter - @henrywilkinson5