Sunday, October 19, 2008


Scott Pack (ex-head buyer at Waterstone's) has a review of OLD MAN ON A BIKE on his web site (hit the title button) and is gifting four copies.


For any of my local readers, Beacon Books at 23 Worcester Road, Malvern, have OLD MAN ON A BIKE in stock. I will be doing a signing later this month.


I received an email yesterday evening from a Spanish couple, Diego and Viki. We traveled together by river boat down the Madeira River (see BLOG 2007-11-11) and became friends. From Manaus, Diego and Viki were heading up a tributary of the Amazon to holiday at an eco-jungle lodge. Eco-jungle lodges are expensive and (mostly) uncomfortable. Preeminent amongst the fauna are ravenous mosquitoes, flies that lay eggs in the most intimate parts of the human anatomy, man-eating serpents, man-eating fish and poisonous everything. Flora is equally deadly. Survivors pass through a green muggy hell only to boast afterwards of a wonderful experience. Tell the truth, eco-jungle lodges would close to the benefit of the jungle. I am overjoyed by Viki's survival. I am even more overjoyed by her and Diego's email. They live in Cadiz. Their email suggests I come visit and eat camarones. Camarones aren't poisonous...


This is more than a Blog - probably too long. However it is the distillation of my musings as I lie in bed here at home in Herefordshire and listen to news on the radio of the United States Presidential election.

I have been traveling by small motorcycle through the Americas for the past three years – perhaps an odd pastime for a man in his mid-seventies.
The journey took me from Veracruz, Mexico, south to Tierra del Fuego and back north to Duchess County, New York – 45,000 kilometers.
Before departing, I visited three High Schools in my native Herefordshire. I asked fifteen-year-olds for their image of a Mexican. All gave the same answer: dark skin, fat, sweating, drooping mustache, big hat, comic accent.
And those from further south? Central and South America?
Drug dealers or crooked cops, corrupt officials.
Such is cultural colonialism - so much is absorbed from Hollywood.
I wondered what those south of the Rio Grande thought of us Brits? Do they imagine that we wear bowler hats, carry umbrellas and drink endless cups of tea? Or that England is a land of football hooligans?
Do they differentiate between Britain and the US?

US citizens possess a certitude in their superiority; Canadians are poor cousins; those south of the border are inferior beings: good ones make good house pets.
At a breakfast club for white Dallas millionaires, I listened to the guest speaker promote a verse history of the US flag for distribution to Primary schools. Each verse faced a full page illustration of the flag in transition and an American family in period dress, Mom, Dad, two kids - white, of course.
The speaker began by warning of 1.2 billion Muslims in the World, all taught from birth to hate and kill Americans. The speaker progressed to Hindu and Buddhist, Chinese and Korean and added an off-hand sneer at the cowardice of the French. He finished by warning that only the army and the church stood between America (the United States) and chaos. Chaos was Latino immigration.

Traditional immigration to the United States were escapees from Europe. They brought little other than their native language and religion. From these grow the tribal allegiances exploited by US politicians: Polish, Irish, Jewish, Black, Italian, Latino. Dissent within the tribe is dangerous – dangerous to the dissenter's business interests. Of those fifty or so wealthy Dallas citizens at breakfast, one possessed sufficient temerity to whisper in Spanish to me that not all in the audience were in agreement with the speaker.

Hispanic America is more homogeneous. The Spanish transported their history and culture to the Americas. Conquistadors married native Americans, as did later settlers. To quote a Mexican businessman in Veracruz: the only true bloods are horses. Poverty of soil or remoteness governs the extent of the genetic mixture: few incomers settled the Altiplano or penetrated the Amazon forest.
Hispanic America is equally homogeneous in religion. Catholicism predominates. The Founding Fathers never mixed. Nor have their descendants. Division rather than diversity infects the country with a pox of competing and exclusive sects and sub-sects: ten different grades of Methodist, a dozen Baptists, the Church of God, the Church of Jesus Christ, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Later Day Saints and so on ad infinitum. Politicians crave support from racist TV preachers. Freshly painted churches stand triumphant on every knoll; trees hide the reality of decaying trailer homes.
This is the South through which I rode this early spring. I carried with me adult memories of legally enforced segregation and of Jews denied entrance to up-market resorts and hotels: Restricted Clientèle was the euphemism. World War 11 was won. The horrors of the holocaust were public knowledge.
Now Senators Clinton and Obama were locked in combat.
Senator Clinton boasted of her approval rating amongst white working-class males (white working-class racist males) and attacked Senator Obama for suggesting that her constituency in the mill towns and mining communities of Pennsylvania were bitter.
I rode north through those valleys towards my Jewish daughter's New York home and found reminders of the Scottish Borders in the 80s, employment decimated by the closure of mill and mine, of boarded shops and For Sale notices. The Scots believed themselves betrayed by an English Conservative Government. The Conservative Party in Scotland has never recovered. What fate will befall Republicans?
Senator Obama has the victory over Senator Clinton. He is hailed as the first Black Presidential nominee. To quote my Texan host: One drop of black blood and you're Black. Black? One word to dismiss the Senator's mother.
This is the language and terminology of division, of the ghetto. We Brits echo it at our peril.
It is a language that rules United States attitudes in foreign relations.
Both academics and Government divide the peoples south of the Rio Grande into Hispanic and indigenous. They mount aid schemes for indigenous communities. Ride through Guatemala and pass massive concrete signs boasting of the generosity of the peoples of the United States. Each article of that aid, however small, bares the clasped hands emblem of US Aid and the United States flag. 120,000 Guatemalans were murdered by the military during 36 years of clandestine war. The Central Intelligence Agency organized the war at the behest of the United Fruit Company. The United States funded the war. Military and para-military were trained by the United States, masters of brutality at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Did the guns and ammunition proudly bare the twin emblems of US Aid and the US Aid's slogan: GIFT OF THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA? Are Guatemalans expected to forget now that the clandestine war is ended? An aftermath of violence rules. Buses in Guatemala City suffered 2,200 armed attacks in the first five months of 2006, the year I rode south from Mexico. Much the same is true through out Central America.
The guns and gangs that dominate the townships are US exports. Governments and economies are destabilized by vast profits in drug trafficking financed by the US market.
Tourists skim the facade. They sun themselves at beach resorts, marvel at the pyramids of Copan and Tikal, admire the architectural treasures of Granada, Leon and Antigua, boast of bargains achieved in negotiating the price of a skirt or shirt handwoven by a village artisan desperate to feed her children, seek a greater morality in taking the eco route.
History is a picture postcard. Understanding is wasted effort.
We echo this attitude at our peril.
On earlier journeys through Central America people differentiated between the United States and Britain. On this journey, I was reminded, time and again, that the Founding Fathers were Brits. We are judged by the company we keep. Minor partners in an alliance, we are held equally responsible for the Iraq war, for the deaths of the uncounted tens of thousand of Iraqi civilians.
At first I remonstrated.
I admit to being something of a Blimp (though infected with Leftist tendencies). I have chosen to believe that we Brits acted better, that those who represent us are men of honor. Yet not a single Brit resigned at the disclosure of those vile happenings in Abhu Ghraib: not a Minister nor our Ambassador in Baghdad, not the senior officer in Baghdad nor the resident Chief of Military Intelligence (surely they knew – certainly they should have known).
“You knew what they were like,” a young investment banker in Costa Rica accused. “You knew what Bush's father did in Panama.”
A week later, I met an elderly schoolmistress in Panama City, a plump, motherly woman who, before retirement had been head mistress of the school in the Historic Quarter. We shared a bench facing the Cathedral. The teacher was reluctant to talk of people. She talked of the apartment buildings in the district that were destroyed in the invasion, that the buildings weren't luxurious but were an improvement, that there was a community feeling to the district.
She insisted that Noriega was easy to arrest. There were so many opportunities. He traveled out in the country, walked the streets...
"So many people died. None of the houses of the rich were damaged, none of the rich were killed, none of the captains. It was against the poor," the teacher insisted... Poor people weren't important. Artisans died and poor people who sold fried fish on the street corner and on the beach at weekends. "Very flavorsome," the teacher assured me, "Fried with chilli and with garlic. Yes, very flavorsome."
Memory of the fish was a trigger. She wept, yet her tone of voice remained calm, almost wondrous, as she spoke of a family, her neighbours. All were killed. The grandmother was seventy-three. The youngest child was only six, a girl. And the teacher talked of her own elder sister who had lived on the top floor of a building. "The soldiers shouted that everyone must come out into the street or be killed. There was so much blood in the elevator and bits of bodies.”
The sister died two days after the invasion. "It was the shock..."
The teacher wiped her eyes and was silent for a while. Then, "They killed more than five thousand people,” she said. “They buried them with tractors. They are hidden there deep down in the area that is called Arenal.”
That evening I talked with a successful Panamanian businessman in his fifties. "Yes," he said, "There were thousands killed..." And, Yes, it would have been easy to capture Noriega. The invasion was unnecessary.
The businessman gave the booming Panamanian economy as the reason for the invasion. President Carter had agreed to the canal being handed over to Panama in ten years. The invasion was a warning to the Panamanians of their true status. George H W Bush was US President. The invasion was named Operation Just Cause. Those in the Pentagon referred to it as Operation Just Because. Official Pentagon estimates put Panamanian deaths at 516 while an internal memo put the figure at over a thousand. An independent Commission of Inquiry put the figure at between 1000 and 4000. Some 15,000 civilians were displaced - most were working class. The US army arrested all the police officers. Wide spread looting resulted. Looters sacked a great museum. Businesses were bankrupted.
I visited a respected Panamanian journalist at his office. “Have no doubts,” the journalist said, “Noriega is a vile man. However he would have been easy to arrest. The invasion was simply a demonstration of power...”
The journalist described the US soldiers as country boys, young, ill educated and inexperienced, that they often fired from panic. The blame for the killing of civilians and for the ransacking of the airport by US soldiers lay with incompetent officers.
The invasion is ever present in the memories of Panamanians as it is through out Central and South America. It is proof of US attitudes.
Let the journalist have the last word: The gringos have never thought of us as equals or important.
So it is in Iraq – no need to count civilian casualties.
Race again...
Introducing me to her students, an Afro-American Professor at Texas A & M remarked that I believed that people in the United States were obsessed by race. The Professor asked how many in the group agreed. A blond female student in the front row finally and timidly raised a hand shoulder-high. One by one all the students followed. Once committed, students unburdened themselves of personal experiences.
Race and the United States are inseparable. So is Religion.
Catholicism is the enemy. Senator Obama's relationship to Reverend Wright commanded media attention for weeks. Little was made of Senator McCain soliciting support from the equally reverend Pastor Hagee. Pastor Hagee frequently refers to the Catholic Church as the Great Whore and the anti-Christ.
Senator McCain referred too Pastor Hagee as “the staunchest leader of our Christian evangelical movement,” while claiming to be “very honored by Pastor John Hagee’s endorsement.”
These are our allies. It is an alliance that has cost us respect in every country through which I rode. We Brits need beware.


Senator Barak Obama is admired througout Hispanic America. Senator John McCain represents the same old US domination and racial arrogance. Few Hispanic Americans believe that Senator Obama will win the Presidential election. Hispanic Americans believe that, even were the Senator to win the vote, the election would be stolen from him.


The journey is done. I met so much generosity and encountered such sadness, such cynicism: in Hispanic America, cynicism in regard to the United States - in the United Sates, cynicism in regard to Hispanic America.
Citizens of the United Sates judge Hispanic America endemically corrupt.
Hispanic Americans view the United States as the bedrock of financial and political corruption.