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I have decided to paste some of my occasional journalism and reviews on the website, both to give the work a greater longevity and in some cases to show the work as it was written, because newspaper sub-editors often make changes in copy as submitted, or it is deliberately submitted minus a few paragraphs from the original version to conform to length requirements.


My contribution to the Scottish independence debate, coinciding with the week my Women and the Vote: A World History was published, was the OUP Blog piece:
Scottish Women and the Vote oxford.ly/1q0SxKn


I WAS A TEENAGE RADICAL

I can clearly remember when I was radicalised.  I was in my school hall and Simon came up and asked if I would like to go to Cuba.

Simon, though a year younger than me, was more dynamic, forceful and very definite in his opinions.  We were both on the Left (few clever kids were not at that time) but Simon was something special, a Marxist, he really believed in this mystical philosophy that seemed to terrify the older generation.  To prove it, he wore little red stars on the lapels of his combat jacket.

He said he had a contact who could arrange a passage to Cuba.  We would work on a sugar plantation for half the day, (why that would be so exciting I can't remember) and for the other half learn about socialism, meet revolutionary leaders, perhaps even meet Fidel himself.

I was 15, it was 1969 and revolution was exciting - you had to be part of the movement or history would pass you by.  That is: we had to be part of the movement now, waiting to grow up wasn't soon enough.  

As it happened, the cost of fares to Cuba excluded us, even with the subsidy of nations friendly to the republic, so we did not cross the Atlantic to become heirs of Che Guevara.

Of course, that was in the time when 'radical' was a term of approbation, and radicals were progressive.  Being radicalised was  a good thing.  

Another recollection from the late 60s I have is of how exciting I found the thought of the cultural revolution, in which Mao Tse Tung empowered the young to explain all the certainty of their teenage years to their elders.  It is not really so hard to convince the young they know it all.

I remembered this recently in discussions about the three Deghayes boys from the Brighton. Two are already dead in Syria at 17 and 18, the third was spared death in the fighting that killed his brothers because he was recovering from a stomach wound from a previous battle.  A 19 year old friend from the same town is also dead.

They are far from the youngest jihadists noted in the press, which accolade goes to 13 year old Younes Abaaoud from Belgium.

I don't know the average age of Islamic State or al-Qaeda fighters, the authorities there don't issue their census returns, but I strongly suspect most are in their teens, led by a few seasoned warriors in their late 20s directed by a handful of older men.  I wonder if they have Armageddon over there or Lord of the Flies.

Cheap air fares and the expectation of freedom of movement has allowed youngsters to turn up on a battlefield before their parents know they aren't on a holiday beach somewhere.  That was the difference, I didn't have that opportunity.  

How much do they really know of the cause for which they fight, or the possible outcome?  I think of those stout fellows that Defoe mentioned who would fight to the death against popery, not knowing if popery was a man or a horse.

One can be too superior in these matters, however.  What of my 18-year-old grandfather who exactly a century ago this year volunteered to fight in the First World War?  I think it was more to get out of the tiny Suffolk village of Woodbridge than to prevent Hunnish expansionism from engulfing the continent of Europe

There is great fear that when today's idealistic young men come back from their Middle Eastern adventure, they will be terrorists at home.  I am not so sure.

The father of the Deghayes boys, sadly too late for two of them, begs international authorities to allow people who have been to fight abroad to come home, acknowledging the error of their ways.  Remembering something about my mindset when young, I think he is right.  Arrest and prosecution might encourage a sense of persecution which could further radicalise.  

I didn't take up the career of a professional revolutionary and neither did anyone else I know, however exciting we found the idea at the time.  People can make their own decision as to what kind of a specimen I turned out to be, but I've certainly never killed anyone.  Simon, my would-be recruiter to international communism, became a model of respectability, with a professional job, an enduring marriage, two children and a house.
 
An early dalliance with extremism, (provided it does not kill) may not contaminate, it may even offer inoculation.


Daily Telegraph
8 December 2014



NICKED FOR A SANDWICH

The proposal by Westminster Council to punish the poor and those who set out to help them is beyond satire. They want to introduce a bylaw making it a criminal offence punishable by a fine of £500 to distribute free food or to sleep out.

‘You, you with the sandwich! You’re nicked, get in the van.’ 

Westminster’s plan amounts to an intention to criminalise the poor and those who would help them.

I have volunteered with Nightwatch, a charity that cares for homeless people, for more than thirty years. I know the clients and I know the volunteers. I can tell Westminster exactly what will happen if their mean-spirited proposal is passed into law.

It is absurd, it is immoral and it won’t work.  It won’t work because decent people will step forward to defy it. The introduction of this bylaw will have the exactly opposite effect from what Westminster intends. People from the surrounding areas and further afield will descend on Westminster every night and politely and without aggression defy the ban by giving food to the poor. The effect will be an increase in the distribution of food.

Westminster says the homeless should not be out at all but should be ‘accessing building-based services.’ But no one becomes homeless because of the offer of a cup of soup and a sandwich. These are not people for whom ‘building based services’ have worked in the past. Most are people whom the system has failed, or by their own behaviour or circumstances have put themselves outside it. They can be helped, but they need to be helped at their own pace. It is, anyway, untrue that Westminster has enough indoor places for homeless people. There is no open access hostel that you can walk in and have a bed for the night if the alternative is sleeping on the streets.

Westminster has many fine locations that attract tourists, shoppers, politicians, office workers and others from all over the world. Westminster probably has more rich people than any area of comparable size in the country. It also has many poor people. If Westminster were not so wealthy, the poor would not be attracted there in such numbers. There are be disagreements as to exactly what should be done about the disparity of wealth, but the answer to the question of poverty cannot be ‘class cleansing’ of sweeping the poor off the streets in one particular area.

Westminster’s civic leaders should be advised to turn the sharp minds to the question of exactly what kind of people volunteer to go out at night in conditions that are unglamorous and sometimes even unsafe, to care for the poor.

The people who distribute food to the poor are by definition well motivated, by profoundly held convictions. Many are professional people, I know teachers, doctors and engineers who volunteer in this way.

Many volunteers are Christians who were brought up on tales of martyrdom for the faith; the central image of the religion is of sacrifice for the sake of humanity. Their ritual of worship incorporates symbolic feeding in the mass. For them the distribution of food to the poor is a moral obligation, it is a scriptural injunction and follows the behaviour of their founder who is recorded in all four gospels to have fed people in their thousands (now, Jesus is a person who wouldn’t have been popular with Westminster Council).

These are not people who would be deterred from a righteous act by the threat of punishment. The reverse is more probably the case.

I have never felt the need to go to Westminster to distribute food (my charity is busy enough in our own borough). The only thing which would compel me to go to Westminster to distribute food is if Westminster succeeds in making it illegal. I would then consider it a civic duty to defy an unjust law, and I would bring friends.

West End Extra 18 March 2011

 
SUBVERSIVE SITES

As the campaign for the town halls slips up a gear, Jad Adams investigates another battle for local government taking place in the foothills of the world wide web.

Subversive sites with names such as ‘Rotten Borough’ and ‘Arrogant Councils’ have been set up over the past three years not for single issue campaigns, but to challenge the whole culture of local government.

If they have a collective view it is that the ballot box is not the solution to local government problems: it is not the political complexion, but the set-up and behaviour of the town halls which is offensive and expensive.

Rotten Borough was set up in 2003 by Ian Johnston, 38, a self-employed gardener from Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire who became disenchanted with local politics after serving as an independent borough councillor.  He said, ‘I had hoped to represent the interests of the people who elected me; instead I became an insignificant part of a bloated system designed to serve the personal interest of its employees and their cronies.’  Completely cynical about the possibility of reform, he says ‘I expect this extortion will continue until civil disobedience persuades those complacent politicians to do something about it.  Disobedience might as well start here.’

If this sounds like a single embittered man, it is a bitterness widely repeated, as his site is replete with named examples of council misconduct posted by ‘victims of the establishment.’

Alan Murray, 54, a public relations consultant from Storrington, West Sussex started Arrogant Councils this year based on a previous site he set up as a protest against what he saw as a disastrous parking scheme in Horsham, where he has an  office.  He was so impressed with the reception of www.welcometohorsham-not that he created Arrogant Councils to duplicate the protest nationally and the site already has more than 100 hits a day.

A typical example from his site is of the £1360 allegedly spent by a county council leader on attending an award ceremony.  The council had entered a road scheme for recognition there – a scheme that was more than £6 million over-budget.  ‘In a private company £6 million of waste would cost someone their job,’ says Murray.

While the waste of public money is often mentioned, it is the behaviour of councils in disregarding the wishes of the local people that recurs in complaints.  Particular outrage is caused by fake ‘consultations’ over big schemes designed to manipulate public responses to produce the result councillors and officers had already decided upon.

The website creators are the sort of people who at other times would be pillars of the community - middle-aged, professional people who speak as if they have seen enough to know that things could be better.  All were motivated initially by a negative encounter with local government that they failed to have resolved through the normal channels, such as Gary Powell who helped a family who were illegally evicted, then took the council involved to the Local Government Ombudsman, to find their response anything but satisfactory, ‘It seems to be an organisation to whitewash cases of local authority maladministration by refusing to report it, ’he says.

Powell, 43, a school teacher now living in Croydon, set up Ombudsmanwatch in 2003 ‘to respond to a deep sense of injustice at the behaviour of this government institution that seemed to me to be entirely unaccountable.’  He posts information about cases taken to the Ombudsman’s office, which he says is staffed by former local government officers who are steeped in the culture of the local authorities they are supposed to be investigating.

‘I hope consciousness of this injustice is going to be raised so that the political establishment have to take notice,’ he says.  He argues for the establishment of an independent local authority complaints commission.

There have always been local campaigns and since the internet existed there have been campaigning sites.  Two things seem to have come together to create the recent proliferation of national protest sites over local government.  One is the ease of setting up and maintaining sites; the other is the behaviour of councils themselves, with new powers and structures given to them by such legislation as the Local Government Act 2000. 

Neil Herron of The People’s No Campaign says that since the new Act came into effect  ‘there has been a greater remoteness and a greater degree of arrogance.  They fail to respond to the needs of the public.  There is a lack of respect for the public.  They have forgotten that the dog should wag the tail and not the other way around.’

Herron, 42, a property developer from Sunderland, set up the site in 2004 to oppose the European Constitution ‘then it expanded into all forms of unaccountable and unacceptable government.’  They successfully campaigned against the setting up of John Prescott’s dream of an elected North East Assembly and are active in opposing the assumption by councils of legalistic powers to impose such penalties as parking fines over which the accused has no recourse to law.

Subversive activity can be very cheap.  Alan Murray says Arrogant Councils cost £30 for a whole year – ‘I  heartily recommend it, for £30 a year you can make an impact.’ 

Gary Powell says he spends an additional £10 a month on LGOwatch to have a Google ad that comes up every time anyone searches for the Ombudsman,  10,000 people a year click on it and ‘realise there is serious doubt about the Ombudsman’s impartiality.’

Meanwhile, local government is fighting back, the Local Government Association commissioned a Mori poll which concluded that public satisfaction with council services is improving, but public approval of local government is not.  The councils accept they are in trouble, but they see it as an image problem.  Ben Dudley, project manager of the Local Government Association’s Reputation campaign says, ‘People are generally happy with the services their council delivers but when you ask them about their own council they think of it as a body of tea-swilling wasters. There is a mis-match that we have to tackle. 

‘A lot of councils in the past haven’t done enough to inform the public what their council tax goes to.  Quality is going up and services are perceived to be going up but people don’t connect that it is their council that is delivering that service.’

The Reputation campaign urges councils to deliver twelve core actions around the themes of the environment and communications: to improve the appearance of the visible environment and to improve communication with the public.

This is unlikely to impress hard core detractors.  Critics of local government have traditionally come from the right wing, in the mould of Poujadistes – little people who do not understand how the system works and just want lower taxes.

When asked, the owners of the new subversive sites were genuinely surprised that there might be any party political context for their work; the councils whose behaviour initiated their protests are of all political colours, as are they.

The absence of any suggestion of racism also differentiates these groups from right wing protest parties.  The new subversives do not demonise a single group, unless it is the entire political class.

Ian Johnston remarks, ‘People of all political persuasions dislike corruption, fraud, theft, greed, incompetence and waste.  We all want good quality services at a reasonable price.  We are not getting them.’

www.rottenborough.org.uk – ‘the antidote to local authority websites

www.arrogantcouncils.co.uk – publicising the most ‘arrogant councils.’

www.thepeopelsnocampaign.co.uk – ‘against all forms of unaccountable and unacceptable governance’

www.ombudsmanwatch.org – ‘exposing the Ombudsman’s pro-council bias’

www.isitfair.co.uk – for the reform of the council tax system

www.lga.gov.uk/reputation - the Local Government Association’s campaign

The Guardian 26 April 2006


HIT HEAD-ON 

The government is putting forward proposals on rogue drivers.  One nearly killed Jad Adams and his partner and two years later he was still picking up the pieces.  

I don’t normally drive around South London at 2am but one Saturday night I had just picked my partner Julie Peakman up at an airport and was bringing her home.  There was nothing else unusual about that night, except that just minutes from our home a vehicle appeared at high speed driving directly towards us on our side of the road and smashed into us head-on.  There wasn’t time even to turn the wheel to swerve to avoid a crash.  There was a deafening noise and a squeal and everything seemed to go backwards as our car was propelled in reverse right down the street.  The clichés are true: it felt as if I had entered a horror film that was running in slow motion with exaggerated sound effects.

The car didn’t respond to the steering wheel, it was one of the few times in my life I have felt utterly helpless.  I realised with horror that we were being pushed back towards a stream of traffic coming towards us.  I expected a crash from behind as other vehicles hit is but we went backwards across the road and mounted the pavement where we stopped.  My side of the passenger compartment had filled with a white airbag, Julie let out a tremendous groan, steam poured out of the ruptured radiator of the car, blocking vision through the windscreen.  I wanted to get away from the car as I feared it would be losing petrol and would burst into flames. 

I said to Julie that we had to get out quickly and bashed open my door which was stiff but still working.  I ran round to Julie’s side and helped her out of the smoking wreckage.  She was very shaky but could stand and walk a few steps to a small garden that the car had almost been pushed into, where I sat her down.  She passed out and liquid started leaking out of her.  I remember thinking very clearly: ‘So this is what it feels like to see you die.’  By now I had switched on to an automatic mode of organising events, deciding point by point what had to be done.

There was a lot happening now: another car stopped and a blonde woman in a blue dress came over to Julie;  a man from the pizza bar was already analysing and giving a commentary on the accident: ‘He came out of nowhere, he must have been going at 60 miles an hour!’  The driver of the other car parked it (unlike mine his car didn’t seem to be written off) and came over to me.  He was stripped to the waist, his eyes were wild and he was babbling as if by bizarre apology, ‘I’ve had a fight, that’s why I’m like this, I wouldn’t be like this otherwise.’  I was using my mobile phone to call for help, he said not to call the police, ‘We can sort this out with the insurance companies.’  I was not thinking of the police so much as an ambulance, but I continued with my call anyway.

The young man went back to his car, took something out of it and got into another car that had stopped, the one driven by the blonde woman in the blue dress.  I am a television producer and used to dealing with a lot of things happening at once, dividing them into the now-or-never events that have to be handled immediately or they will be lost, separated from the merely urgent and from the desirable.  I realised that this man was leaving the scene, therefore it was not merely a bad accident: this was a crime taking place and I’d never see him again.  I was not going to let this bastard get away with it.

I stopped everything and took the number of the car in which our assailant was speeding off.  I made sure someone was with Julie and liaised with ambulance and emergency services; I took the names of witnesses and details of the car involved in the accident; later I took pictures of the cars. 

Remarkably quickly an ambulance came for Julie.  We had been lucky: the engine of my Rover was concertinaed into half its previous space but the passenger compartment had been relatively undamaged.  Julie’s internal injuries had been caused by being hurled forward into the seat belt with great force.  My injuries were trivial, the airbag had absorbed the shock.

The police came to take details and order the removal of the wreckage of both cars from the South Circular.  The story of the driver leaving the scene of an accident with someone in another car, abandoning his own vehicle, didn’t seem at all unusual to them.  I made a guess that he was moving drugs and the blonde girl’s brief was to be looking out for him: guarding the merchandise.

As the days passed and I talked to the police and my insurance company I learned more about the car that had hit us, though no more about the driver.  The police told me the car was not only uninsured, it wasn’t even registered: no one officially owned it, we had been hit by a phantom vehicle.

The police tried to track down the owner and confided to me that had 70-80 cases like this on the go at any one time. ‘In the whole Metropolitan Police area?’  I said, thinking I was sounding knowledgeable.  ‘No,’ he said, ‘in Lewisham’.

The driver had just vanished into the capacious South London underworld without so much as a point on his licence to show what he had done to us.  The police weren’t interested in tracking the car he had left in, driven by the blonde woman in the blue dress, probably because any crimes they knew of were committed by him, not her, and tracking her might end up to be a waste of time.

The police did go through the log of the car that hit us to find the last owner who had registered it.  They leaned on him to find the man to whom he had sold the car and they made a visit. 

The supposed owner of the car was, as they say, ‘known to the police.’  He denied he was the person driving who had injured us, which happened to be true: the person who had injured us and this ‘owner’ were not the same person: one was white and one black.  With his uncooperative attitude to the police, there was no way they could trace the driver of the vehicle, which he denied owning.

Later an investigator for my insurance company called on him and was asked to leave in words of one syllable.  Then the investigator called again.  I wouldn’t have advised knocking once on the door of a Peckham drug dealer (unless you are actually keen on buying drugs).  Two visits was one visit too many, and the insurance investigator was run off the estate by a posse of the dealers’ friends.  He decided his investigation was at an end.

Julie, a professional historian, was up and about two weeks after the accident and had recovered fully in six, but it was difficult to obtain compensation for her injuries and loss of income.  No one seemed very interested, but we fortunately had legal insurance that provided us with a lawyer to recoup uninsured losses.  We had to go through the Motor Insurance Bureau, set by the insurance companies to deal with compensation claims for accidents caused by uninsured drivers.  The government estimates that up to £30 per policy is paid by honest, insured motorists, to cover the cost of accidents involving the uninsured.

My insurance company replaced my car but as they were unable to recoup their losses and ‘close’ the file, they stripped me of what had been a full no claims bonus so I ended up paying £1000 a year to insure a car when I had previously paid a quarter of that.  Just this week, two years on from the accident and after a threat to go to the Financial Services Ombudsman on the matter, my no claims has been reinstated and my previous losses refunded.

There are an estimated million uninsured drivers on our roads.  Currently the police have no power to seize uninsured vehicles and have no immediate access to the motor insurance database; they have to have a reason for stopping a vehicle before making a check.

The government is currently consulting over plans to give police powers to seize uninsured vehicles, and to link the DVLA Vehicle Register and the Motor Insurance Databases so the police can run a check on any vehicle as soon as they see it.

To be honest, nothing will stop a drugged-up madman from driving dangerously late at night.  But the people I was unwittingly caught up with clearly knew the system and were deliberately driving without registration and insurance, as a protection for their criminal business.  They knew just what to do when something went wrong and they knew the limits of police powers.  If they become vulnerable because the police can do checks on sight, it won’t make honest citizens out of them, but it will make the rest of us safer.

Whatever the government wants to do about rogue drivers, it can’t be soon enough for me.  

The Times 24 November 2004

 
DOPED OUT IN FIJI

One sun drenched atoll after another, the relentless palm trees and limitless stars, turquoise-bordered stretches of sand as beige as a young professional’s carpet.  It is easy to get bored in paradise unless you live to snorkel.

Fiji, however, is an antidote to South Sea island torpor.  We arrived in Nadi, a town of cunning taxi drivers and troublesome sword sellers, hucksters and tricksters in the appropriately named craft market, gold toothed Chinese merchants and temple fortune tellers bobbing up and down in front of the holy flame.  We walk like prey among sharks; we are advised to keep hold of our bags and we practice defensive postures to adopt if challenged.  Out of the sweaty darkness come shadowy figures descending to offer a taxi trip to the unknown, and hookers at the corners beckon us into unclean establishments for blistering curries and pints of Fiji Bitter Ale.  My sort of town, really.

Near our hotel is a tiny place, more a hole in the wall than a shop, with a few benches on the street in front where a cluster of glassy-eyed Fijians loll in the shade.  Jimmy’s Grog Shop sells an improbable mix of cooking gas and kava, the local dope, to help ease the locals into their lethargy. 

All over these islands men sit around drinking bowls of a powdered root, the traditional drink.  They mix it in small plastic bowls and drink it from polished coconut shells that they dip in.  The kava shop isn’t quite like a pub or a café, no one sits around talking about football or relationships; they just sit around.  Kava has been claimed to be responsible for the unflustered attitude to life on the Pacific Islands, the reason why no one wants to exert themselves and are content to let life happen.  The culture is not only tolerant of idleness, it is positively encouraged.  Rushing to get things done is considered peculiar; expecting someone else to rush on your behalf is downright rude.

I was a very strange spectacle indeed when on one island I went running around the shops looking for a phone card in order to call a shipping company before they broke for lunch at 11am.  I got flustered while the shop-keepers languidly looked around, ‘I thought we had one…maybe under that pile of things over there…’  As far as they are concerned, a telephone call doesn’t mean a thing.  Even a missed boat doesn’t mean a lot, there will be another one along next week.

Clearly I needed a dose of kava.  I just had to get stoned for research purposes in the Aldous Huxley tradition.  I told my girlfriend it had always been my vision of my future while a teenager that I would be living in an exotic country, writing in the morning and taking weird drugs in a hotel room with a beautiful woman in the afternoon.  This is the sort of thing a girlfriend likes to hear.

I bought a little brown packet for about thirty pence from Jimmy, who seemed to have been enjoying his own produce to a considerable extent and was not talkative.  Back at the hotel I mix it in two tea cups, it looks like the sort of mud-soup children make with gritty stuff at the bottom and woody vegetable matter floating on top.  We both gulp it back.  It tastes, too, like a mud drink and is bitter like Chinese herbs.  The immediate effect is numbness in the mouth like a dental anaesthetic.

I eagerly wait for the euphoria, the sense of well being, the quiescence in the universe and within us all.  Then I eat the woody vegetable matter which is a tedious business.  Enthusiasm wanes after an hour.  “Bad dope, man,” says the girlf  sarcastically.

Determined not to repeat those youthful experiments of smoking dozens of dried banana skins in the hope the cumulative effect would be hallucinogenic, I determine on research and call in at the national library.

Kava ceremonies have been well reported by anthropologists throughout the South Pacific.  Kava is a valuable object of ceremonial exchange: indeed, tourists are advised to take packets on today’s island tours to give to the local chief.

Kava is important for all rites connected with the chief: his death, marriage, circumcision; the reception of a visiting chief; and the building of a chief’s house or canoe.  Any excuse for a party, really.

Traditionally boys from the village would chew kava root and spit it out into a ceremonial bowl, the resulting mush is mixed with water, strained and drunk.  It had to be done in a carefully observed ritual fashion, however.  Cross-legged men sat by order of rank in a circular formation.  As the processes unfold there were different chants: ‘Kawa nai mama’-  the kava is chewed;  ‘Kuo bolo’ - it is kneaded;  ‘Lini o ma wai’ - pour the water.

The kava maker begins to strain the mixture according to elaborate ritual:  ‘If he squeezes with the right hand he keeps the left elbow on his left knee and vice versa.  It is taboo to raise the elbow above the knee while squeezing.  If this taboo is broken, he may never make kava for the chief again.  It is very taboo (tambu sara) for the kava maker to straighten his legs or to shake the strainer while straining.’

In some places a kava song would be sung during the ceremony, with verses such as:

Break the kava root and let us drink here,

The water poured in is quite clear,

I can hear the sound of it again,

Like the falling of gentle rain.’

These men on an island paradise sitting in a clearing getting zonked out brings to mind Homer’s lotus eaters.  Forget the worries of the world…what world?

Botanically, kava is the powdered root of the Piper methysticum plant, found all over the South Pacific: in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.  The chewing is done because enzymes in saliva activate the psychoactive ingredients, the kavalectones.  Without them the stuff is less potent, though it still works as a mild anaesthetic.

                                                In my terms this means I can either get a native boy to chew and spit it out for me, or I can take a lot more of it.  At the Kava Market in the Fijian capital of Suva I find stone counters piled high with sinister twisted roots and bags of powder.  A jolly man explains his rival kava seller had probably given us the powdered bark, not so strong as the root.  He tells me to immerse the powder in water and strain it through a cloth.  Don’t, as I did earlier, eat the woody vegetable matter – a notion which gives him more pleasure than it did me.  He drinks seven or eight mixtures a night – overdose is unlikely as sleep comes first.

So I buy a few bags, put the powder into a sock and immerse it in water until it is a strong, brown liquid and drink several cups of it in the time-honoured fashion from a polished coconut shell like a tea. 

The girlfriend decides on independent research rather than participating: she hates the bitter taste so much she doesn’t want to drink any more.  This is probably a clue as to why there are vastly more male than female kava drinkers.

This time I indeed sit back with a sense of well being though I am advised: look, this is Fiji, there isn’t much to feel bad about.  So I sit and sit, not thinking of very much with perfect clarity, as if things are just right as they are, and eventually lie down.  It was as the kava seller described the experience: ‘First you sit and talk, then you sit and listen, then you don’t even want to listen...’  I think the fourteen different forms of analgaesic detectable in powdered kava root had simply anaesthetised my brain.

On reflection, the notion that kava has made a big contribution to Pacific Island work culture is, I think, an argument by association.  In fact it was because the Fijians and others took such a laid back attitude to life that they chose as their drug of choice such a literally mind-numbing drug as kava.

The reason why they took such a relaxed attitude to manual labour was the climate giving them an abundance of self-reproducing food.  The coconuts, breadfruit and bananas are there for the picking and need no cultivation; anyone wanting sport could hunt the wild pig or go fishing and be sure of success.  Caves, jungle or easily constructed huts gave what shelter was needed, though perennial sun and warm rain – ‘liquid sunshine’ – did not call for the most hardy structures. They didn’t trouble to domesticate the wild chickens – why bother when they are there anyway?

No pyramids for them: their monumental architecture for ritual activities was stones on the ground.  Their one exertion was war: a culture of tribal conflict which means favourite tourist artefacts today are neck-breaker clubs and forks for ritual cannibalism.  The other things you can buy are the ubiquitous kava bowls, often of hard wood and intricately carved.

Kava is now widely available in health food shops in the northern hemisphere as an alternative to drugs for anxiety and to cure sleeplessness.  In keeping with the functional approach of Europe and North America, the amounts supplied are strictly regulated and limited as to strength.  Its use as a Fijian-style social relaxant is unlikely.

WORK AND THE FIJIANS

Early explorers in the Pacific thought they had found the original paradise where people lived in nakedness and plenty under the sun, free from labour and from the  fear of sin.

The missionaries soon put them right on that matter, but the natives’ easy attitude to work caused great difficulties with the settlers and the colonial authorities in the nineteenth century.  The natives simply did not get the concept of work: that they were there to labour to farm more food than they needed themselves, in order for someone else to sell it for gain.  This did not fit with their way of thinking at all.

The solution adopted in Fiji was to import new natives.  After the British took over in 1874 hard-working Indians were shipped in under an ‘indenture’ system which was heavily criticised as being little better than slavery. 

Many Indian settled after their period of indenture, and prospered, creating new businesses and services.  Their numbers eventually began to rival those of the indigenous natives.  They lived under a series of disabilities regarding land ownership and trade union rights but as democracy developed after independence in 1970, the Indians began asserting their political rights.

An electoral victory for an Indian-led coalition in 1987 led to attacks on Indian property and a military coup during with the prime minister and cabinet were arrested.  The usual procedure of the arrest of community leaders and academics followed.  Over the next decade (somewhat predictably) the economy collapsed.  Native Fijians started to see some merit in coming to terms with the industrious Indians.  A new multi-ethnic democracy was established in 1997 and the island is currently at peace.


The Idler September 2004


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