The New International Brigades

No one really dwells on the question of why so many young men from Europe, Canada, Australia, even China, are going to fight in Syria and Iraq with the so-called Islamic State (Isis), or with other Islamist militias. The New York Times recently published a map showing which countries the foreign volunteers come from. The numbers are slippery and often contradictory, but the foreign presence in Syria and Iraq is reckoned at around 17,000 fighters. The biggest contingents are from Chechnya and the North Caucasus (around 9000) and Turkey (1000). There are also 400 from Kosovo. But 1900 come from Western Europe (700 from France, 340 from Britain, 60 from Ireland), 100 from the US, and between 50 and 100 from Australia. More »

In Bishkek

The PEN International Congress in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, last week was the first to be held in Central Asia. It was also the first at which the organisation resolved to oppose ‘anti-LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) legislation which restricts the right to freedom of expression’, having never before campaigned on sexuality or gender identity. More »

In Heywood

The odds show Labour still favourite to beat Ukip in the Heywood and Middleton by-election on Thursday, but that we’re even talking about it being contested is significant, given that the constituency I grew up in has been solid Labour for half a century. Polls show Labour comfortably ahead, but Ukip increasing its vote tenfold to 31 per cent. On a trip home the other weekend, I didn’t see many posters in windows and turnout will be low. More »

In Clacton

A poll at the weekend gave the Tory defector and Ukip candidate Douglas Carswell a 44-point lead in the Clacton by-election. He looks set to become Ukip’s first ever MP on Thursday.

One of the first people I saw as I came out of Clacton-on-Sea train station on Saturday was carrying a Douglas Carswell poster. He said his name was Tristan, and he’d just been at the Ukip campaign office with his son. He’d never voted before but was backing Carswell because of Ukip’s stance on immigration. He thought that David Cameron’s weak policies on immigration were to blame for the state of the country. More »

Communicating Consent

When it was announced that two-thirds of Cambridge colleges would include mandatory sexual consent workshops in their Freshers’ Week schedules, one boy complained that it was ‘just an excuse to further emasculate male students’. The Spectator worried that explicitly stated consent in sexual encounters would ‘kill off seduction’. More »

Occupy Central

The atmosphere of the student-organised, leaderless, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last week was hopeful, even jubilant, although the police had attacked the crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets on Sunday 28 September. Under torrential rain, tens of thousands of peaceful Hong Kongers made their way to Admiralty, Central, Causeway Bay and Mongkok. I was volunteering at a station to distribute supplies. On Tuesday we had to refuse any more water donations, we had so much already. Food and first aid workers were abundant. Strangers quickly became friends. ‘Hong Kong people are so practical,’ one fellow outlying islander said. ‘They go to work and then come to protest.’ More »

Aphex Twin’s Genius

Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, the UK’s (arguably, but not that arguably) most innovative electronic music producer ever, has said he was suprised his record label Warp wanted to release a new album by him – the first Aphex Twin album in 13 years. I don’t know how he can have got that impression. Warp was so enthusiastic that it floated a green blimp over London with the Aphex Twin logo on it. I was so enthusiastic about it that I bought the album from an actual shop the day it came out; almost everyone I know has heard it; last week it was the eighth best-selling album in the country, which is unusual for a piece of avant-garde electronica. More »

Who will save the NHS?

In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron vowed to protect current levels of health spending. He also stressed that ‘you can only have a strong NHS if you have a strong economy’ – something Labour ‘will never understand’. In other words, the salvation of the NHS depends on a Conservative victory at the next election. That sentence has a strange ring to it. But everyone claims to be the saviour of the health service these days. Both camps in the Scottish independence debate claimed it. The Labour Party claims it. The Conservative Party claims it. More »

In Hong Kong

I didn’t expect to see Occupy Central on the streets when I arrived in Hong Kong at the end of September. Like most tourists from the mainland, I went down to Central with a couple of friends for a close-up look at one of the world’s greatest consumer cultures in action, but the protest had been brought forward. On the subway there were dozens of teenagers wearing yellow ribbons in support of the cause. My friend in Hong Kong, who knows a little Cantonese, overheard one of the girls saying the boy she had a crush on had gone to the protest and she wanted to join him. They got off at Admiralty station, close to the demonstration. Love is the handmaiden of revolution. Later on TV we saw the pepper spray and tear gas, and we heard rumours – it turned out later they were orchestrated – of rubber bullets and armoured vehicles on the streets, yet there was calm for the most part, despite the odd flurry of projectiles and an attempt to shove through a barrier. The police reaction seemed guaranteed to bring more people out. More »

Stranger, Crueller and More Crazy

Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, ‘set up after the fall of the dictator’, to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are ‘stranger, crueller and more crazy’ than everyone else’s. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may ‘turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire’. More »

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