I have been reading, Q4 2012

 (c) Leland Holiday (2010)

Came home from Tanzania, where I'd been stuck with the same 5 hard books for 3 months - Does Foreign Aid Really Work?, Philosophical Investigations, Lipsey's Mathematical Economics, Crawford & Imlah's Scottish Verse, and Beyond Good and Evil - I binged a bit, re-reading old favourites. (This included three different books with "How To" in the title, but they're much better than that might suggest.) Also got a job in a bookshop, so, y'know.

Grading system:
1/5: No.
2/5: For enthusiasts, I guess.
3/5: Skim it.
4/5: Read it receptively.
4*/5: Exceptional.
5?/5: First read of a 5/5.
5/5: Read it now, slowly, and probably repeatedly.

  • Monogamy (1996) by Adam Philips. Casually radical bunch of aphorisms questioning our automatic pair-bonding. Every page has something to raise or furrow yr eyebrows. 4/5

  • Bring the Noise (2007) by Simon Reynolds. My favourite pop writer traces his own development, from slightly clumsy Marxist projecting onto old-school rap, to the most acute pop-culture theorist we have. 4/5 

  • Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews (2009) by Simon Reynolds. Less impressive collection, but his love of the music shines through, and his scepticism about the more wanky post-punks helps considerably. David Byrne and Green Gartside come across particularly well. 3/5

  • Re-read: Stumbling on Happiness (2006) by Daniel Gilbert. This is really amazing, pop-psych survey of how to apply the last 50 years of psychology / cognitive science. He's one the pioneers of the Economics of Happiness school, but nowhere near as annoying as those tend to be. Also has a good Woody Allen-type flow. 5?/5

  • Re-read: How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read (2008) by Pierre Bayard. Astonishing and therapeutic work against the reading classes (of which I obviously am, but still). Bayard actually disowns it, and there's plenty of obvious irony involved, but the "Bayard" of this is still a credible and persuasive devil's advocate. 5/5

  • Re-read: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Favourite children's book. Sarky and warm and overflowing with ideas. 5/5

  • Read aloud, aborted: Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1871) by Jules Verne. Proper boring. First 150 pages (out of 220) is a completely uneventful dialogue about an obscure Victorian geological debate. Narrator is kind of charming. Didn't help that we were just waiting for the dinosaurs to appear. Gave up. 2/5

  • Flight to Arras (1942) by Antoine Saint-Exupéry. Powerful nationalist elegy written during the defeat of France. I don't think I've ever been moved by anything that subsumes the individual so totally. The central thought is that war is futile and absurd but that he must continue. The existentialism can get kind of leaden in comparison to his other stuff. 4/5

  • How to Travel With a Salmon (1994) by Umberto Eco. Bunch of satirical pieces about academia and consumerism. One piece, analysing a cheapo catalogue, is quite affecting. But it hasn't aged all that well. He's still funny. This has the feel of a notebook which is cool? 3/5.

  • Read aloud, aborted: Critique of Criminal Reason (2006) by Michael Gregorio. Couldn't resist this after reading the blurb - Kant solving murder mysteries in wintry Konigsberg - but gave up after 80 pages of samey dirty Gothic blah. I really don't like crime fiction: by virtue of its conventions, it is rarely humanistic, fantastical, or realistic - the three ways fiction can impress me.

  • Escalator (2006) by Michael Gardiner. Incredible set of short stories by a Scot living in Japan. I rarely engage with the genre, but each of these is too powerful to stay distant from. Racism, hyper-reality, economic pressure, and family, all handled with subtlety and quiet desperation. 4/5

  • How to Live Forever Or Die Trying (2007) by Bryan Appleyard. A very versatile thinker being critical and fair about transhumanism and cryonics. His portrait of us as morbid/paranoid pill-munching nerds is not obviously incorrect. The book's a bit of a mishmash, with an extended middle section on ultimate meaning and Medieval funeral habits not totally meshing together - and his grasp of the science is, as he admits, insufficient. But his summation is balanced, and his apriori estimate of the intractable philosophical problems and potential social catastrophes of these disruptive technologies is hard to fault. 4/5

  • Open University material from M823 (2012). Started a Master's in Maths, but quickly realised I'd overreached myself. 3/5.

  • Museum Without Walls (2012) by Jonathan Meades. Another favourite, the best bellowing arts contrarian in the land. This is mostly just a collection of TV scripts I've already seen, and though this means that we can at last catch up with his rapid-fire aesthetic barbs, they still suffer without their inspired, bizarre visual production. A sense of loneliness comes through on paper, where anger and historical sweep is the dominant note in the final programmes. You can see almost all his work at this Youtube channel. It is a fine use of a week.
    4/5, for 5/5 programmes.

  • No Other Place: Poetry from the Aberdeen University Review (1995). Got this as a xmas present for someone - but I know they encourage pre-using media presents (why wouldn't you?) so I snuck in a read-through. Lots of poems about Aberdeen U specifically, which got me good and sentimental. 3/5 in general tho. The final piece, by Archibald Wavell, is amazing:

...My chin, once glossy as a nectarine,
Now looks like holly on a Christmas card,
Or straggly hawthorns in a woodland scene
Such as is deftly drawn by Fragonard;
No R.S.M. would pass me for a guard
However much I titivate and preen.
My luck would daunt a Roland or Bayard;
I left my shaving-brush at Aberdeen.

Pity me, Prince :  the water here is hard,
Hourly my tongue inclines to the obscene,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
I left my shaving-brush at Aberdeen.

Hm. I gave mostly high ratings. (I suppose that means I wasn't taking many risks with my reading.)


notes from Kamachumu in Kagera in Tanzania in Africa

'Despite it all, we still like you.'

– Abraham, on Tanzanians' general attitude toward white people.


"Hello supervisor, can we have the vital operating budget we were allocated?"

"Hello! No; it's not here."

"Oh no! That sucks. Can I just pay it for them, then?"

"Heavens no! That would breed aid dependency."

"Oh. Well, maybe. Can I lend it to them until the budget comes through?"

"Heavens no! That would breach the equality of volunteers! We have planned under the assumption that volunteers have no no money."

"But that assumption isn't true - look, here's my lunch money."

"Yes. So?"


...So in fact we're playing a game here? A game, with these people's lives: SimVSO. This whole strand of the project is to be undone over £4 of printing costs?"

"Welcome to the third sector!"


Coldplay ring out over Africa.


Excellent things in Tanzania:

  • Ludicrous freshness of the food.
  • The instant familial, familiar communitarianism. (We the human family.)
  • The looseness of property that attends that (Mi ipod es su ipod.)
  • The style, the condition and the volume of the women's clothes.
  • The baffling lack of racism against whites.
  • Teachers playing football deadly seriously against their 11 year old charges, losing.
  • The word and practice "kugongea": a visit to someone's house expressly for the free food.


Tanzania's buildings and artefacts are austere and scabby - but its natural surroundings are rococo. (Monkeys climbing on the roof above the bright green matoke and bright red dirt.) What world place is the converse, with gaudy things and mundane nature? Los Angeles? Tokyo?


Widely accepted ways of despising the poor:

  • Portray them as parasitic. ("Not job creators.")

  • When confronted with poverty, talk about aid dependency.

  • When confronted with an individual case of poverty, immediately change the subject to begging rackets. (Makes donation naive and immoral.)

These aspersions are not merely delusions borne of ignorance and self-interest. But no one using them knows how much they actually manifest - whether they are poison or just the idea of poison which has the same effect.


The received idea of Africa:

"that hot place where people die".


My family here are Muslim. But in three months no one asked me my religion. Just "brother".


All of the town signs in the country are Coke branded!


Ha! There are no appointments in Africa!
- Ta Bwogi, project manager


Tote bags and screen prints display constantly the gods of this region:

Nyerere, Marley, Obama


Maxims for the International Third Sector

  • Contacts are king. Take everyone's number, note everyone's skills.
  • You do not know what to do out here. But few do.
  • The plan will perish. Do not drag people down with it.
  • Do no harm.
  • Confirm all appointments twice.
  • Keep obsessive records.
  • Allow lots of slippage time.
  • Keep your inner life floating free. Critique silently.
  • Will haste serve justice?
  • It is imperative that you not look bored in meetings. "Penye wengi pana mengi."
  • You have not succeeded until your successor succeeds.
  • 'Enliven morality with wit, but temper wit with morality.'


Local: "I do not like this David Cameron."
"Oh? Good. Why?"
"He is tying foreign aid to gay rights!"


Something we did almost every day and which now seems dodgy:

Hiding round the corner from a shop while our black mate went to buy the things we wanted - at the actual price, not the bei mzungu.


16/8/12. Come across a dying dog on my way home. Shout for help. No response. It is barely breathing. What to do? Carry it to the RSPCA? Curb-stomp it in my sandals? Later, passing through the narrow banana grove at 50mph, at night, Ta Sunday runs it over with his Toyota pickup, anyway.


19/8/12. My first Eid. Lunch was weird - sat in a circle on the floor with eight men facing a massive 20kg mound of rice which we handled admirably.


Feeling the crush of intellectual violence here: the phrase "Well, it's my opinion", wielded as a club to dismiss rational challenge. "That's your OPINION." - the word rightly spat out, being as it is an insult and a torture device. This phrase is used as if the hope of consonant reason was a waste of time, since the iron and homogenous fact of all matters is that



- Swahili proverb


Me: "Yeah, I don't really like Bob Marley."
A: "!? I thought you said you liked philosophy?"


S & A have been smoking weed throughout. Police weed. The cop just gave it to them. It is difficult to think of this as corruption.


Urg. The women talked about their 'right' to sex with their husbands.


The modern world has equipped developing-world doctors with incredibly powerful meds - but extraordinarily weak diagnostic skills.


The most horrible thing I encountered was the (illegal) old Haya bride kidnapping custom.
Step 1: Invite, trick, or kidnap yourself a woman.
Step 2: Keep her in your room for 40 days.
Result: by tribal law, she is your wife and her family must accept you.

Apparently, a man tried to do this during my time there. Ranting to my sister about this, she listened politely and added: "Worse than this: some men are taking women without paying anything!"


Bought my brother some Maasai viagra ("mkongora") as a joke. It was sold to me without ridicule or bawdry, just beautiful quiet understanding.


It's utterly taboo for men to cry. Poor N learned this in the throes of a breakdown, suddenly ostracised by his family.


In 1911, Italian Catholic priests put before a group of Acholi elders the question “Who created you?”. Because the Luo Language does not have an independent concept of 'create' or 'creation', the question was rendered to mean ‘Who moulded you?’ But this was still meaningless - because human beings are born of their mothers. The elders told the visitors they did not know. But we are told that this reply was unsatisfactory, and the missionaries insisted that a satisfactory answer must be given. One of the elders remembered that, although a person may be born normally, when he is afflicted with sclerosis of the spine, then he loses his normal figure, he gets ‘moulded.’ So he said, ‘Rubanga is the one who moulds people'.
- Kwai Miredu

Thus in Luo, the Christian god is called "Rubanga". And hence a fair translation of God is "Hunchback".


The priests' houses up at Rutabo are ludicrous mansions. And they held an all-day party at the church to celebrate him moving into his second mansion.


You go to church for the Mass, not for him giving Mass."
- Dotto,

explaining how there can be such high church attendance
alongside such distrust of religious leaders.


A name for a modern phenomenon: the glass bully.  Full of insecurities and microaggression, they wield them for the purposes of ensuring attention and exoneration. They pose unique difficulties for good people because of their emotional fragility and incapability of processing criticism. It always seems clear that standing up to them will just multiply suffering. Thus on they go.


I actually learned fragments of three languages in my time in Kagera: Kiswahili, Kihaya and London:

This tongue has "peng" (attractive), "next" (extreme), "bear" (very), "vex" (annoy), "gassed" (excessively pleased), "chattin shit", "he got some grow" (weed), "swag", "He's my link" (casual booty call).

thus "Marilyn Monroe is bear peng."


12/9/12. The head of Kamachumu B Primary School fetches a pile of sticks to punish the entire class of 10 year-olds. He herds them like sheep and beats them one by one on the arms, legs, back until each stick breaks. We never do find out what the entire class is supposed to have done.


Moralising Parent: There's a lot of sick people in the world.
Me: [to myself] Yep, and most of em have children.


The volunteers were required to do a lot of corporate evaluation. Asked for the fifth time about "my personal development on the programme" in writing, I opted for excessive honesty:

"At the beginning of my time in Tanzania, my reaction to the company of awful people was the same as anybody's: run away, express disgust, perhaps attack them. But this standard response is naive, given that many of us must spend much of our lives co-operating with dreadul people.

I realise I'd led a sheltered life, with very little of it spent around dreadful people - a few hundred hours in high school, some more during my spell as a waiter, and a while in English tutorials at university. Lucky then, that I was given this chance to intensively practice patience and tolerance in my work placement. I was able to:

  • discover the limits of my charity;
  • grow used to futility;
  • give my self-mastery a daily workout.

Furthermore, the long periods spent withdrawn to an inner redoubt were surely salutary to my mental upholstery and foundations.

More seriously: as a result I've acquired the belief that it is weak to hate people. Hatred is the product of a failure of imagination. Failure to imagine, ignorance, of what made them as they are, without which ignorance hatred could not survive. Polite disdain is the order of the day, and I now know it's not beyond me.

Less seriously: consequently I find myself a more stable and employable individual - for what more employable skill is there than the ability to stomach fools? I face my future with irony and calm."


Where else would you find a regional office of the ruling political party storing 700kg of vanilla pods?




What goes through you
When you call me my race?

Not malice I know
Not avarice mostly
Not even always predication –
leaving what?

“Mzungu!” sound of joy of novelty
“Mzungu!” lay your voice on the rich world
“Mzungu!” need to be seen
by The Mzungu, distant source on earth of stuff.

I do not hear any of that
(pallards as thin-skinned as pale)
I grimace at you, fight indifference and fear
walk on.

some colours

some houses empty shambles, sweat all round,
laborious housekeep, and smoke all round,
some everythings shoddy, and dust all round,
women, no cattle, and illness all round

- but flowers are flowers
clean bright and
equal. Some colours glow against
backgrounds darkly. Some colours are freeing,
lift burdens. Some colours bless 
an efficacious blessing, for once.


the kabootar in flight

What lasts?

- not harmless cheek (the hidden key to grand toilets),
by definition
- good education (1000 kids given an inkling)
does, for a bit
- concussion (the price of adventure you paid for us)
won't, touch wood
- massage (a sudden kind thumb)
rare and brief

no. what lasts is the harsh heat of family's hand,
the undying vampire queen London, mathematics,
and sometimes the memory of friends,
the kabootar in flight.    

(For Rohit Rajput)

[‘Kabootar’ is Punjabi for ‘bird’.]


why it?

Just fun and fertilisation?
No: we come and we go and so on:

I wanted to do it to say I had done it
I wanted to try something new

I wanted him to like me
I wanted him to shut up about it

I wanted to feel good about myself
I wanted her to feel good about herself

I wanted to let off steam
I just wanted him, alright. so hot.

It was New Year's.

I wanted to get back at my husband
I wanted to say thank you

I needed the money
I needed the job

I wanted the guys to respect me
I wanted some of her glamour to rub off

I was bored
I wanted the exercise

I did not feel safe to say no.

I wanted them because they wanted me
I wanted her; she's so smart

I wanted to say I'd missed him
I wanted her; she's so funny

I wanted to feel powerful
I wanted to feel power

I wanted to improve
I wanted to be ready for my real first time

It had been a while.

I wanted to humiliate someone
I wanted to punish myself

I did it for a bet
I was forced to do it

I did it because he was there
I wanted to annoy my parents

I wanted to change the topic
She was famous

We had just broken up.

I felt like I had to after all that
I wanted to get her to stay

I wanted to know what he'd be like
I needed an excuse to break up with her

I wanted to make up
I don't know what I wanted

It just happened.

I wanted to really talk
I wanted union

I wanted him; the moon was out
I wanted to wake up with her

I wanted her to know it was serious
I wanted acceptance,

I wanted to say I loved her
I wanted to feel closer to god.

I'll settle for this