Es-Tu, Charlie?

Je-suis-CharlieI’m deeply sorry for those killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo and its aftermath, and for the pain of their families and friends. I have to say these things in advance of anything else I write, because – well, because those are the things you’re supposed to say. But I didn’t know any of those people, or their family, or their friends. I didn’t read their magazine, and I probably wouldn’t have read it even if I’d been in Paris. My sympathy is strictly mediated, and for public consumption.

In all honesty, I’d rather save my sympathy. I’d rather ration my outrage. I’m worried by attacks on freedom of speech, but this wasn’t an attack on freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo was completely free to publish what it wanted; the attack on freedom of speech comes now, in the aftermath, as those in power use it as an excuse to control us more deeply than ever, and people start to wonder if what they published was worth the risk.

Obviously the editor-in-chief thought so: he said so explicitly. Maybe the cleaner at his offices felt differently, or the policeman guarding him; both of them died as well. So far I’m still with Voltaire: I may not agree with what Charlie Hebdo said (or the way they said it), but I will defend to the death their right to say it. Yet I’m also with Holmes: Charlie Hebdo’s right to swing its fist ends where my nose begins – and I’m prepared to extend my Holmes a bit further.

You can swing your fist in whatever direction you want, but – for the purposes of satire, at least, for the purposes of ridicule – there’s a common expression in comedy circles: don’t punch down. Punch up, by all means: target the powerful, and the rich, and the famous; but don’t target those who don’t have the same cultural resources with which to defend themselves. I wouldn’t say this is an absolute rule, but it’s a useful rule of thumb.

So why did Charlie Hebdo punch down? Because Charlie Hebdo didn’t even realise they were punching down. They saw ISLAM in big block capitals, MILITANT ISLAM that went against the very grain of Charlie Hebdo’s secular origins in the republic; they saw the imminent threat that’s been painted by our governments and our media, the threat that is not just at our doorsteps, but cleaning our kitchens, or stirring in our banlieues.

From that perspective, ISLAM looks more powerful than it is (which is exactly what MILITANT ISLAM wants you to think) so you think you’re punching up: but of course context is everything. Context doesn’t excuse, but it does explain. Context is the detail of the picture, rather than the broad brush strokes. Context reaches into the past to pull out reasons by the root. Context spreads its arms to avoid arrogance and embrace ambiguity. Context forces us to think, and think again.

What else happened on the day that Charlie Hebdo was murdered? Well, we don’t know the exact demographics of French prisons, because the French government doesn’t keep those statistics; but if they’re the same as they were in 2008, then the prison population in France is about 60-70% Muslim. That doesn’t excuse Charlie Hebdo’s murderers; but if you don’t think it’s relevant, then you’re going to be continually surprised by the real world.

headlineImage.adapt.1460.high.1420993506639What else happened on the day that Charlie Hebdo was murdered? In Nigeria, Boko Haram finished its battle for the town of Baga: the town was burnt to the ground hundreds, maybe thousands, of its in residents killed, and the rest fled. Nobody will commemorate them outside French embassies across Europe. That doesn’t make the murder of Charlie Hebdo any less shocking; but if you aren’t equally moved by Nigerian deaths, perhaps you should ask why.

What else happened on the day that Charlie Hebdo was murdered? In 1957, the French Army took over the Battle of Algiers from the civilian police force. The battle eventually cost the lives of up to 3000 Algerians, with another 3000 missing, and the date marked the point at which torture became institutionalised in that early war on terror. That has nothing to do with the muder of Charlie Hebdo, of course, unless you think that the history of French colonialism has no relevance to power and powerlessness.


Was it MUSLIMS who killed those people in Paris? Are such broad brushstrokes very useful in understanding the situation, or remedying the problem? Or are they a convenient way of avoiding looking at the context, of wondering whether this is an imperial hangover for which there may be no cure? Invisible Arabs, like those in French prisons; invisible Muslims, like those who disappeared during the Algerian war of independence; invisible Others, like the Nigerian dead of Baga.

In some small way, I’m more afraid of publishing this than I am of criticising Islam. The Empire doesn’t treat its dissidents well, but it does it quietly; at least Al-Qaeda makes it abundantly clear what your punishment will be. If I don’t express enough solidarity, then the internet will be outraged, because context-free outrage is the currency of the internet. Still: I went to the demonstration last night in my city, stood by the signs that said Je Suis Charlie, and worried about freedom of speech.

Nothing excuses these murders. No reason is good enough for these murders. No history justifies these murders. No religion justifies these murders. No politics justifies these murders. Yet the murders had their reasons, their histories, their religion, their politics. It’s too easy to dismiss them, and it’s too easy to turn on ourselves, and we need to avoid taking those easy routes. Maybe Je Suis Charlie, but Nous Sommes Pas Charlie; and that’s our political problem, not theirs.



Horse Phantoms

A couple of months ago, I published Four Species of Ghost, a knife crime on the body of psycho-geography, in Kamenzind Beograd Issue 5. Four Species is partly an homage to Iain Sinclair, whose work has been hugely influential in how I understand the city as a work of literature, and that’s probably a little too obvious.

It’s hard to escape the shadows of your literary influences, but it’s harder to escape the consequences of poor urban planning. As you’ll gather if you read the article, Savamala is a mess; trapped between a rising river and a falling hill, it’s suffered from decades of neglect that no amount of artisanal bike repair shops can fix.

Walking in Savamala now, I feel the hot breath of the Four Horseman of Gentrication upon my neck; and first among the Horsemen is Beograd na Vodi (warning: link may contain satire), the biggest experiment in social engineering ever attempted in the Balkans. Savamala Future doesn’t look anything like how I described it in my article: in fact it looks worse.

Beograd na Vodi

This is not my beautiful house.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the billboard outside the main train station, a vision of Belgrade that looks like it’s just flown in from Dubai, and isn’t planning on staying too long. I’m sure it would be a great place to visit, but you probably wouldn’t want to live there – but then I’m not sure that the government really intends people to live there.

Large-scale urban development projects such as this speak the language of the public good, and they spend public money; but the real ambition is to attract outside investment (in this case, more Emirati money rolling into town). The problem is that the only way to do this is to wipe out what came before: the rich and ragged history of one of the oldest parts of the city.

One good thing has come out of Beograd na Vodi so far – the renovation of Geozavod, into something that looks a bit faux but is finally being put to use. Of course, that made my article outdated before it was even published; but that’s the great thing about psycho-geography. It’s not about what’s there right now, but what was and what will be. Savamala survives, for now.


Writing off Iraq

This month the White Review published my non fiction piece Every Night is like a Disco: Iraq, 2003, which only took me 11 years to write. I had it in notes, in my head, for that whole time; I always intended to write something, especially after Granta published Fly Away Home: Iraq, 1998. So why did it take so long?

I’d been writing about my working life ever since I started, cribbing from my notes, emails, reports, and anything else I could get my hands on. I’d published a couple of pieces in small magazines, and was thinking (optimistically) about pitching a full-length book, to be titled “Life in the Colony”.

After Iraq – well, after Iraq, three things happened. One was that I was filled with remorse – an attentuated strand of survivor’s guilt – and I felt that I would be trading on the lives of others. I hadn’t earned that right, not by a long shot, and the best thing to do would be to shut up. This feeling continues today, and publishing Disco was quite difficult for me.

Second was that I was angry at the humanitarian sector, and particularly the United Nations, for the abject failure of judgement that was Iraq. After working in Afghanistan, I didn’t expect much from the US and UK governments, but I had hoped that the UN had learned something. They hadn’t, and I’m not sure they’ve learned it now.

Third was that there was a snowstorm of books after Iraq, often from people who’d been in far worse situations than I, or had done far better research and reporting. Iraq became a coin in the reputational currency of the Beltway and beyond, to be traded for power and (often) sex; and I didn’t want any part of that. Aid memoirs? I felt like I needed to grow up.

The memory wouldn’t go away. It was a turning point in how I approached my work, in how I viewed the entire sector. It represented something more for me than just another story in the collection, and I never forgot those people along the airport road. Here was Iraq under a microscope; or more likely Iraq under a magnifying glass, burnt by the sun.

So this summer I sat down and wrote it in a couple of days. Long gestation, quick birth; I guess it had been writing itself in the back of my head. It was an awkward child – too long for short stories, too short for longform. I had a vague idea that The White Review, whose tastes trend extremely catholic, might want to publish it, maybe? And they did.

Now it’s out, I feel a sense of relief. I can get on with writing other things, maybe even from that same period: I have half a piece from Liberia, that same year, “A Day Late and a Dollar Short”, but who knows if I’ll ever finish it? That’s the problem with writing: you can make all the plans you want, but sometimes the words follow their own schedule.


Your Berlin is a Wonderland

Thanks to the Wonderland crew, I spent last week in Berlin touring a cross-section of the city’s most Berlin-ish urban developments. Berlin isn’t the city it was – the relentless teeth of global capital and recession angst have really started to bite in the last few years – but it retains some core values that didn’t fall with the Wall.

Those “core values” include a measured pragmatism that acknowledges that financial benefit isn’t necessarily a social good. The urban landscape (London, I’m looking at you) is increasingly scarred by borderline psychopaths who want to re-shape the city into a playground for themselves and others like them. Berlin has a stronger immune system than that.


A good example of this is a financing policy in which tenders are not granted to the lowest bid; instead a cost is set by the authorities and the most interesting proposal given the tender. Finding the money for “interesting” proposals is another thing entirely, of course – the bizarre role of Swiss pension funds in supporting alternative culture should not be under-stated.

Now obviously I’m a sucker for socially-conscious + environmentally-friendly buildings – the reason I was at Wonderlab was to represent Pametnija Zgrada – but I also retain my core personality trait of being impossible to please. My question is a simple one: does it work? That is: does it live in the real world, rather than in an urbanist’s wet dream?


The Berlin answer is: yes, but only just. Nearly all the projects we visited had benefited from investment that covered site acquisition at reasonable interest rates, so they could start making profit quickly. The inevitable & painful dilemma: alternative cultural approaches are being subsidised by extremely mainstream financial tools (and not just pension funds).

I liked all of the projects, especially ExRotaprint, which seems to get the balance Goldilocks right. Yet it was clear that these types of project don’t necessarily translate well to other contexts – definitely not to other countries (like Serbia) but probably not even to other cities in Germany. We can take inspiration from them, but probably not replicate them.


We spent the rest of our days exchanging experiences between exchanging experiences between projects, a crazy-quilt mix of different approaches to the same problem: the disconnect between people and place. As the world goes urban, this isn’t just an excuse for architects to hold workshops, but the concrete problem that’s going to shape the century.

This is mirrored by the online problem of privacy; to a large extent these twin problems are urban problems. One thing that was noticeable by its absence, then, was any discussion about the smart city – yet Berlin is geared to be a tech hub, and all of the workshop participants were all heavy technology users. I guess that discussion will have to wait until next time.


We were hosted by DAZ, whose internet leaves a lot to be desired, but whose hospitality was excellent.


(Apologies for the fully intentional John Mayer reference in title.)

Picture accompanying The Humanitarian Future

Danas Mirabilis

And so it came to pass that Aeon and Nature both published one of my pieces on the same day.

The Humanitarian Future was difficult. The original article was trying to be three things: a potted history of the modern humanitarian sector, an outline of what needs to change for ‘humanitarianism’ to survive in the now-times, and a brief personal account of my work. My editor Brigid Hains took one look at that and realised it wasn’t going to work. The final version doesn’t capture everything that I wanted to say, but, contrary to what the internet wants you to believe, it doesn’t have to. This is a small part of a wider discussion, across many platforms and in many fora. Go read.

The tiger waiting on the shore, by contrast, was easy. I had been enjoying the Nature Futures podcast for a few months, and wondered if they had an open submissions policy. They did, so I wrote the story in less than a day, and sent it off with no expectations. Editor Colin Sullivan accepted it immediately, and it’s printed more or less as I originally wrote it. Writers’ lesson for the day: you never know where you might find a platform for your work. The story is a science fiction / horror / family drama – a bit more obscure than most of the stories that Nature publishes, and it fills me with a feeling I can’t quite describe.

Sounds of Savamala cover art

What Savamala Sounds

I drove overnight from Belgrade to Herceg Novi, and then I fell off the map for about two weeks. Before we started driving, I went to the launch of the Savamala Soundwalk, the project put together by Kolektiv ImproveE2.0 and Zvučna mapa Beograda. Yeah, yeah, street team Belgrade, keeping it real, etc, etc.

The team had so much interesting material this year, they decided to release two Soundwalks. Broadly speaking, the artists on “Sounds of” focused on the field recordings themselves, twisting and turning the cityscape; meanwhile the artists on “Sounds for” used thosee recordings as inspirations for a range of compositions.

If I had to pick some favourites, I’d go for Andagainandagain’s Walking to Geozavod building, and Igor Miskovic’s Dockyard Echoes on Sounds of; and Zartzinfekt’s Route 2, and Jasna Jovićević’s Route 5 on Sounds for. (Jay Zr’s Bridge Over Tromboned Water wins best title, obviously.) But I change my opinion on a daily basis, so my opinion is worth nothing.

Both sets are fantastic, and I’m not just saying that because my track Sedmina was included on “Sounds of” under my pointless pseudonym of The Black Mountain Installation. The ideal way to experience these is to listen while walking along the actual routes recorded, since each track is the same duration as the walk it was inspired by. IT’S MAGIC.

New Track – Sedmina

I composed a track for this year’s Zvučne šetnje Savamalom (Savamala Soundwalk, if you don’t speak Serbian), made out of sounds sampled from a walk along Karađorđeva (with some additional samples from Freesound). “Sedmina” means “Seventh”, but it also means something else.

Paul Currion In performance at UK Parobrod, March 2014

No Place To Run No Place To

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a writer is to sit around waiting for other people to recognize your genius. There are two reasons for this: first, you’re not a genius; and second, people are idiots. (You may notice that these two are basically the same point.)

My resolution this year was to write, but also to perform. I’ve always envied visual artists who can take over a space and force themselves into the public consciousness; on the other hand, visual art can easily become wallpaper in a way that performance usually doesn’t.

In March and May, we staged two updates of Jekyll and Hyde at UK Parobrod: my paranoid drone fantasy, No Place To Run No Place To, and Marija Pavlovic’s gothic satire Čudni slučaj gospođe Džekil i doktorke Hajd. NATURALLY IT WAS A TRIUMPH ON EVERY LEVEL.

Originally I wanted Pete Chaffey to play the role of the drone pilot, and Željko Maksimović to play the psychopathic doctor. Unfortunately Pete was playing golf in South Africa working, so I was forced to don the white coat – my first time on stage in 20 years.

Feedback from the audience was great, although obviously nobody rushes up to tell you how much you sucked. We recorded some video, but… let’s just say, it’s not the best video ever. You can download the story script of No Place To Run No Place To in PDF.

Flyer for Uze mi rec iz usta