b a c k t o c o m m o n s

[ 00:06 wednesday 12 december – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

the house of lords has completed its scrutiny of the “terrorism” bill and has passed intelligent amendments removing all its worst excesses.

tomorrow the bill returns to the commons. the government has indicated it is willing to remove the elements fast-tracking eu legislation and creating new crimes of religious hatred to consider them separately next year. however it has offered no concessions on the clauses permiting detention without trial or review.

presumably the commons will overturn all the lords’ amendments, comforted that the democratic process has been served by the government’s concessions. then the bill should go back to the lords, where there is every sign the noble members would persist in their objections.

in the normal run of things the bill could go back and forth three times in this fashion and if the lords still objected the government would have to abandon it til next year.

but i have a bad feeling the government is not going to let this happen. i don’t know how, but my instinct says the government plans to circumvent the lords somehow to get the bill onto the statute books in the form they want it, and to do so promptly. i hope i’m wrong for this would not be a good auger for the future of democratic government in britain. i’m rather attached to democracy.

: cH

u n d e r w a t e r

[ 20:48 friday 7 december – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

from http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk_politics/newsid_1696000/1696491.stm

Home Secretary David Blunkett is accusing unelected opposition peers of committing “sabotage” on the bill.

The government was ready to listen to sensible proposals for change, he said, but the Lords had removed four “major parts”.

“I will ask the Commons to reverse all the decisions last night because they were literally holding the bill underwater,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.

ummm… *literally* holding the bill underwater? perhaps this is a devilish new parliamentary tactic?

: cH

a m e n d m e n t s

[ 19:41 friday 7 december – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

last night the uk house of lords did a splendid job of picking apart the government’s “anti-terrorism” bill. a couple snippets of debate are reproduced below, together with links to the pages of hansard from which the excerpts are drawn. crucially the noble lords made amendments which remove the exclusion of judicial review, moderate the draconian snooping powers and remove the ill-considered clauses creating a new crime of “religious hatred” in their entirety. in so doing they have performed their function of defending the constitution and inhibiting the passage of bad legislation.

now the bill will go back to the house of commons where the government will, without a second thought, overturn every single one of the lords’ amendments.

the lords feel strongly about the bill, as the debate attests. they will fight the government with every means the constitution permits them. in theory they could delay the bill for up to twelve months. the government has indicated it expects it to be law before christmas. not only will the lords fail, i suspect the government fully intends to use this fight as a pretext for further diminishing the house of lords’ powers. i predict we shall see heated accusations that this unelected body is hampering the elected government’s efforts to safeguard citizens’ security.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden:
My submission is that in the Bill we should not be driven to surrender a precious safeguard against the abuse of power, especially when there is no need for it. If one did so, one could be sure that such a precedent would soon be followed because, in my experience, all departmental Ministers resent judicial review.

Lord Donaldson of Lymington:
Where does this leave us? If the amendment is carried it remains most unlikely that judicial review will ever be sought. If it is rejected, the message will go out loud and clear, not as the noble and learned Attorney–General believes, that judicial review is unnecessary, but that the Government are bent on having the power to operate outside the rule of law.

Noble Lords: Oh!

: cH

n a p o l i

[ 00:16 monday 26 november – via carrozieri alla posta, napoli ]

i write from an enormous room on the top floor of a crumbling eighteenth-century palazzo, behind the architecture school in the centre of town, tended by two grand napolitan ladies who appear to be equally ancient. there is no heating so i rely upon layers of heavy bedclothes to keep the chill night air at bay. adjoining my bedroom is a still huger salon, crammed with mismatched furniture. i am here as a result of a tip from my friend gabriele in palermo. otherwise i should probably have ended up somewhere sensible and ordinary.

it is almost exactly a decade since i last stayed in this city. the former occasion, in the middle of december 1991, was also my very first foray into italy. at that time i was studying at cambridge and managing a choir composed of my fellow choral scholars from st john’s college. financed by the banco di napoli and the british council we flew over here, gave a ticket-only charity performance in the british consulate, then a proper concert in the chiesa santa chiara in front of an audience of about 4000. after a self-indulgent programme comprising most of my favourite repertoire (josquin, gombert, poulenc, stravinsky…) we encored with mel torme’s “christmas song”. to my chagrin the crowd left us in little doubt which part of the programme they appreciated. the front two rows were composed entirely of diplomats and politicians and on this occasions at least their feelings were entirely representative of the wider population. afterwards the british ambassador took me to dinner with barone barracca who showed us his collection of antique guns. slightly overwhelming for a fresh-faced undergraduate.

despite all this i came away thinking napoli rather an ugly city, wondering why people made such a song and dance about it.

i travelled over from stromboli last wednesday determined to return with a codice fiscale, the tax registration one needs in order to open a bank account, subscribe to a phone service, view billing information online, buy a packet of crisps, &c. i first tried to obtain one in milano last summer but after a couple of weeks circulating between half a dozen offices in different parts of town, invariably closed at whatever time i chanced to arrive, i gave up. this time, despite another campaign of iterative misinformation, i persisted and am now the proud possessor of a smudged computer print-out bearing the precious chain of figures and letters.

during the struggle i have become completely intoxicated with napoli. for most of my life i have acknowledged myself a devout ruralist, viewing cities as splendidly diverting places in short bursts but essentially dehumanising and awful. now my credentials are in tatters. somehow this place has cast a spell on me. there is a precipitous excitement on the streets, a vividness and immediacy of living. it is an unruly, messy, passionate place. the narrow winding canyons of back-streets, decorated everywhere with washing, are continually interrupted by sumptuous obelisks and churches. law is something which emerges from a kind of wild consensus, all that is prescribed from above is contemptuously ignored. when an entire population takes this stance it is difficult for any authority to prevail. napoli is the triumphant example of a city sprung from humanity in all its shades, not from mechanism or rational organisation. nobody would ever plan napoli. it is a dangerous place, corrupt, decadent. dark and light elements are so tightly intertwined here that they cannot be disentangled. the city is a vast mega-celled organism; breathing, seathing, pulsing with an intelligence of the seasons of man and earth.

santa chiara is just around the corner from me, a massive mediaeval structure flattened during the war by an american bomb intended for the port and rebuilt immediately afterwards with unperturbable hauteur. i look on it with different eyes from those of 1991. walking back from an arabic cafe on piazza bellini (where i had been writing my journal and reading a powerful old history of the jackson presidencies of the 1830s) i entered piazza gesu nuovo to find it thronged with young people; cars and scooters arrayed at crazy angles around the edges, a bonfire blazing on the far side. to many this would appear a scene of urban collapse, a source of fear. such people i would urge to observe the details more closely; to see the intricate maneouvers negotiated between drivers to enable vehicles to come and go, notice how the fire is kept in place with the occasional nudge to avoid damage to surrounding buildings, witness how the crowd manages itself and how rapidly incipient scuffles are subdued. what i see is a celebration of civilisation, not its absense. what is see is a community occupying and using its city in a way i have not witnesses elsewhere. in napoli i feel tremendous optimism.

: cH

j u d i x

[ 21:54 monday 19 november – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

on my desktop as i write i’ve got a live video stream from the uk house of commons. the government’s emergency anti-terrorism bill is being debated. the discussion is passionate and at moments surprisingly moving.

for anyone who’s interested the feed is always available at

representatives observe that britain already has more official secrets than any other state in western europe. that this new bill goes a long way to creating the conditions of a police state. that it contains provisions which represent significant constitutional change (removing the fundamental right to trial, permitting persons to be imprisoned indefinitely at the instruction of the secretary of state, creating an unprecedented mechanism by which all future decisions made by the european union home affairs committee will automatic pass into uk law without normal parliamentary debate) yet is being rushed through the house without time for proper scrutiny.

i cannot recall having heard such discussion in parliament during my lifetime. these people have some understanding of what they are in the process of doing.

the bill is being presented as emergency legislation which removes it from the normal requirements of parliamentary debate. though it is a long bill, only three days of debate have been allotted. it is scheduled to reach the statute books by christmas. with the government’s huge majority there is not the slightest chance that it will be stopped or significantly amended.

therefore, in seven weeks, this will be the law of the united kingdom. those who like me are citizens of that nation had better get used to the fact that this is now the kind of society of which we are a part.

the full text of the bill is published at
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/pabills.htm. typically it is written in a way which makes it hard for the ordinary citizen to see its significance. i draw people’s attention to two clauses in particular:

– section 21 : suspected international terrorist: certification
this lays out the basis on which the secretary of state may “certify” that someone is a “terrorist”, after which they may be imprisoned indefinitely. there is no need for any crime to have been committed. there is no need for a trial to take place. the suspect has no right to know the accusation against them. the suspect has no right to see the evidence against them. there is no limit to period for which they may be imprisoned.

– section 29 : exclusion of legal proceedings
this explicitly cancels the authority of any court to challenge decisions of the secretary of state.

over the past four years a succession of bad bills have passed onto the uk statute books. a mental health act which permits indefinite incarceration and treatment without trial if a single qualified psychiatrist pronounces a citizen to have a “serious personality disorder” likely to lead tham to commit a crime. an anti-terrorism bill which makes the possession of information likely to be useful to terrorists an offence in its own right. a regulation of interception powers bill which creates a presumption of guilt for those who receive encrypted messages unless they can prove they are unable to decrypt them.

i have observed these and other measures passing into law and felt an inexorable progression towards the sort of bill being debated tonight. the moment i heard of the atrocity in new york i knew the conditions existed in which that progress might continue to its logical and grim conclusion. i fear greatly for the bills we shall see in the months ahead.

beverley hughes, parliamentary secretary representing the home office, makes a gloriously chilling slip in replying to concerns from the floor. “we understand how serious these questions are and we’ve taken ten minutes… er, i mean ten weeks… to consider them.” a little later she expresses the view that “we cannot draw a line between crime and terrorism” which certainly represents the thrust of legislation over the past two years. the consequences of such a view are worth pondering.

[ 23:45 ]

the anti-terrorist bill passed by 400 votes to 5. the house is now debating a “derogation” of the european convention on human rights. the government adjudges that britain currently faces a risk “which threatens the life of the nation” and thus claims emergency powers to over-rule the part of the convention on human rights guaranteeing the right to a fair trial. it is worth noting that no other nation in europe has felt it necessary to do derogate this clause.

if i interpret the technicalities correctly it is irrelevant what conclusions the house comes to in this debate. the measure has been introduced by executive order and has already come into force.

since magna carta, 800 years ago, every person suspected of wrong-doing in britain has been accorded the right to a trial before their peers. in one and a half months that right will cease to exist. what’s happening?

: cH

m e s o

[ 21:55 saturday 17 november – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

as i wrote the header i wondered when i wrote my last despatch so i looked in my mail archive and checked the date stamp. one month, to the very same minute. uncanny!

enough spookiness. i’m sitting on the wall in front of my and landon’s house in the darkness. powerbook on lap, caving torch on head. i’m connected to the internet via an 802.11b wireless link, and thus able to listen to a splendid arabic web-radio channel as i sit and write.

it’s been a perfect day here in the islands. clear sky, soft fragrant air, strong sun. everyone’s been drifting round with a dreamy look on their face. just a week ago there were two-metre-high waves crashing over the quay and 120kmh winds. every day is different, i love it.

i spent just over a week in london, but that was an eternity ago. i felt great apprehension at making the journey. perhaps i expected to find the city under martial law with machine-gun-toting storm-troopers at every street corner. but from the moment i arrived at rome airport and found things as lackadaisical as ever my anxieties were confounded (yes sir, take anything you like on the plane…). i looked out of the windows during the descent into london to see a fine autumn evening with trees casting long golden shadows on the grass, possibly the first time i’ve ever returned to britain and not found it saturated in soggy greyness.

arriving on the heathrow express (a chillingly efficient service) into paddington actually provoked a small thrill of excitement. the sense of bustle and commotion remains very much like all those victorian paintings of grand stations. really this set the tone for my time in london. i stayed with mark and celyn in oval and enjoyed being in the city tremendously, all the more so for its unexpectedness. there was a little more tension in the air but nothing overwhelming.

my main mission was to gather together everything landon and i need for the next six months, pack it up safely and get it despatched to stromboli. predictably this was all rather hectic. new equipment to buy, old equipment to gather, several million lira to arrange, courier services to organise, clothes to sort out, lots of packing. bit by bit it came together until on friday 26 october six boxes were collected from my old home in shoreditch and loaded into a parcelforce worldwide van, which came complete with its grumpy-cockney-with-a-philosophical-side driver. it seemed like an excellent service. guaranteed delivery anywhere in europe within four days, door to door.

this afternoon, 22 days later, five of my boxes arrived here in stromboli. the sixth box arrived last week, in london. nobody has quite been able to explain why. my dealings with parcelforce have plunged me into a horrifying nether world of spatial indeterminacy and circular bureaucracy. rarely have i come across an organisation quite so flagrantly incapable of discharging the humble function it professes to serve. i would go to quite phenomenal lengths to avoid further engagement with them, ever again, ever. i pray their compensation regime will cover a few months in therapy.

thankfully this torment has been offset by some excellent news. i came here to stromboli, and moreover dragged landon from a good job in seattle, without having managed to secure a single penny of funding for our work. this gives some indication how determined i am that these projects shall be undertaken. but last monday we heard that we will have £13,500 from the uk community fund over the next six months. and yesterday news arrived that the gulbenkian foundation has awarded us a further £10,000 (bless them all). it’s not a lot, and it’s taken a ridiculous amount of effort by james smith and me to get it, but it will be sufficient and that’s the only thing that matters.

landon knows neither that messrs gulbenkian have smiled upon us nor that the boxes have arrived. having spent a solid month on the island and completed the first piece of development he left yesterday morning for a week in amsterdam, relaxing and getting a fix of urban culture. it does seem very quiet here without him.

my aunt clare arrived to visit last monday and departed this afternoon, on the same hydrofoil which delivered my boxes. having lived for three years in italy, principally in florence, she put my stumbling italian wholly to shame. her first days here were wet and stormy but these last two days have been serene. the volcano performed well for her. she too received good news on thursday, informing her that she had succeeded in getting southwark council to reject an ill-conceived planning proposal. having visitors is definitely a good marker of the transition from being a tourist to being a resident. i look forward to welcoming others in the coming months.

now it is time for me to silence the audio stream, close the powerbook, extinguish my lantern and turn my eyes to the brilliant stars. tonight is predicted to be the peek of intensity for the leonid meteorites. viewing conditions could not be more perfect.

: cH

a t t e s a

[ 21:55 wednesday 17 october – binario 4, stazione di milazzo, sicilia ]

sitting here now on a marble bench bathed in flourescent light, my feelings for milazzo are quite different from one and a half months ago when i sat writing in the cafe, impatient to be away from this place.

i took the afternoon hydrofoil from stromboli, feeling most reluctant to leave, and docked here at twenty to six. a travel agent was able to tell me that there would be a sleeper train departing for rome at ten to eleven, arriving there around nine tomorrow morning. perfect. since this left me a few hours i walked up to the old castle and around the back streets. many impressions. ancient wizened women sitting in doorways, participating vicariously in the passing world, returning sage acknowledgements to shouted greetings. a street of shoe shops, a street of clothes shops, a street of bakers with sacks of flour piled to the ceiling and men in white hats pounding dough. a huddle of youths on the pavement, one of them accompanying their chatter with his guitar. something about these simple things made me feel very moved. i walked on with a lump in my throat. i love the way these people live.

later, trying without success to find a bus or taxi to the station, i asked in the restaurant where i’d supped. they laughed, said it wasn’t easy, and called a friend. ten minutes later an old mercedes pulled up, lovingly polished. mario, its owner, and i were not done chatting by the time we arrived here at the station and we continued standing by the boot with my bags at my feet for a good ten minutes. i complimented him on the car, said i much prefered the old ones to the new ones. he wanted me to drive it around for a bit but i was too shy. he gave me twice as much change as he should have done, counting it into my hand so i would know it was not a mistake. everyone told me i would be robbed blind here in the south.

landon arrived just after dawn yesterday. it was a perfect day. even the islanders were remarking on the stillness of the sea. we swam. talked of the work ahead. dined magnificently at punta lena. then i led landon halfway up the volcano where we sat watching eruptions for, well, however long it was. on the way down we passed three boys and sat on the ground chatting with them whilst watching a while longer. the volcano was more vigorous than i have ever seen it; orange plumes soaring high into the air then tumbling down the black flanks of the mountain. i think landon felt he had arrived somewhere.

yes, i was sorry to leave.

[ 08:23 thursday 18 october – sleeper train milazzo to roma ]

we’ll be in rome in twenty minutes or so. the countryside beyond the window looks more autumnal than in the south. a watery sun, misty fields. i have slept excellently on my little berth, though with strange dreams. just 21,000 lire (£7, $10) on top of the basic ticket. i love sleeper trains!

at messina the train is broken into several sections, each of which is then shunted onto a ship and conveyed across the straits to regio di calabria where it is reassembled and continues on its way. i was dozing through must of it but subliminally aware of the nudges and changing motions. one day i am sure a bridge will be built from sicily to mainland italy, cutting an hour from the journey time, and this wondrous feet of engineering will be forgotten.

crumbling sections of ancient aqueducts fly past. we are arriving at rome.

: cH

v e r d e t t i

[ 17:34 sunday 14 october – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

a lot of people have written to me in response to what i wrote about september 11. i shall return to some of these responses in future despatches.
>> allegation 1 – financial links between bush and bin laden families >>
this appears to be true. james bath, a friend of gwb, disclosed under oath that he represented four saudi businessmen, one of whom was salem bin laden (father of osama) and invested money on their behalf under his own name. bath is listed as in investor in two of george w bush’s businesses from the late 70s and early 80s. the us treasury department was called on to investigate claims that saudi interests were thus illegally seeking to influence us policy during the reagan and papa bush administrations. i am not aware of the verdict of these investigations. thanks to stef in melbourne and alex in new york for pointing me to the relevant documents.

however it has been pointed out that the bin laden family is one of the most prominent and highly respected in saudi arabia and that it is not surprising that they should seek influence with a leading political dynasty in the us. it is further observed that the bin laden family severed all links with osama some years ago and that he is officially exiled from saudi arabia. therefore this allegation, though seemingly true, is perhaps not so very startling. dodgy financial-political bonds like this are commonplace, though they mostly remain invisible. thanks to olivia and ian in london for their comments.

>> allegation 2 – fore-knowledge of the attack in the us stock market >>
again this seems to be true. morgan stanley in new york reported a 30% pick-up in trading of stock-put options on airline and insurance firms prior to 11 september. the us treasury department has launched an investigation. its conclusions would make interesting reading but they’re unlikely to be made public. thanks to christian and roberto in london for the inside info.

>> allegation 3 – global media fabrication of islamic jubilation >>
this allegation is entirely false. several documents promoting it are in circulation, purporting to emanate from individuals in reputable broadcasting organisations, but it seems they are phoney. thanks to my namesake charles armstrong in london who established that the cnn footage came from associated press and is kosher. yuval in israel also reports that friends of his in the israeli army confirm that such celebrations did indeed occur (though these might not be the most objective sources). a nice comment too from olivia, who points out that anyone wanting to dupe public opinion would probably concoct something more impressive.

i don’t believe the events of september 11 were orchestrated by some kind of cabal of security forces and big business. but neither will i accept the official narratives without question. strange things are afoot in the world, things which may affect us all. in such a situation it is appropriate to take nothing for granted, to question all information and consider all possible interpretations, however distasteful. i notice already a subtle pressure against certain kinds of speculation, an implication that to voice “unpatriotic” thoughts is to support terrorists. this sets alarm bells ringing in my head. historically it is not a good sign.

mainly i am concerned about the way this event has changed the status quo. in retrospect it is possible this will be identifiable as the moment when an era of financial paramountcy gave way to an era of military paramountcy. the two sets of interests are very much interwoven but i do sense a distinct shift. and i think i prefered things with the financiers on top.

suddenly the initiative is with those who promote authoritarian solutions. as someone whose convictions are solidly liberal this bothers me a whole lot. what’s more i believe a shift towards greater authoritarianism is directly contrary to the economic interests of our societies. we don’t know much about the century ahead but it seems certain that imagination, adaptability and diversity will be crucial to continuing prosperity. these qualities are not exactly the strong suits of authoritarian societies.

for me there’s also a more personal concern. my efforts are largely devoted to the cause of social change. i am committed to working for a world where opportunity, well-being and liberty are more evenly distributed. the more authoritarian our societies become, the more my efforts (and those of others working for change) are likely to meet with resistance. this is not a prospect to be relished.

: cH

v o l t e

[ 23:20 saturday 13 october – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

one year ago i was catching my first glimpses of the dust and commotion of tamale, northern ghana. two years ago i was living in a tent amongst the elm trees in gaz and button’s garden on st marys, isles of scilly, forming the scillonia digital workshop in a derelict stable. three years ago i was completing my online consultancy work for the decca record company (circus foundation’s first commercial-sector job) and starting work with mark perrett on an identity for the school for social entrepreneurs (circus’ first social-sector job). four years ago i’d completed my first few days of employment at online magic, still uplifted from trekking with kirmo kivela in the expanse and the perpetual light of finnish lapland. five years ago craig, alex and i were collaborating within the electric company, nearing the end of that adventure.

ten years ago i was beginning my second year at st john’s college, returning to the misty ochre of a cambridge autumn already disillusioned by my studies. twenty years ago i was restless and slightly bored at primary school in the mid-west of cornwall, ever more absorbed in my music. thirty years ago i completed my first month of life in an old house surrounded by trees at curdridge, hampshire.

the present. two days ago i reached agreement with paolo russo, stromboli’s windsurfing supremo, to rent one of his houses for the next six months. it’s a traditional eolian structure, three interconnecting white cubes clustered around a courtyard. the house is here in piscita, northernmost part of the settlement, sitting on a black lava promontary with the sea breaking all around. landon and i chose it in preference to several larger and more luxurious dwellings elsewhere on the island.

it won’t be ready for a week. until then we have the run of another house which belongs to paolo’s aunt. it is from here that i write now, surrounded by the mismatched jetsom which gathers in occasionally-habited spaces.

i sense these months will be decisive for me in many ways, not all of which are yet apparent. sometimes i look at my past and it seems disjointed and haphazard. at other times it seems to be a steady elaboration of the same few themes. i have no reason to believe my future will be any different.

landon arrives on tuesday. the next episode begins.

: cH

e l e m e n t s

[ 00:53 wednesday 10 october – casa melograno, piscita, isola di stromboli ]

for the last few hours i’ve been sitting on the northern side of the volcano above punta labronzo. up there it is possible to escape altogether from civilisation to watch the earth spit fire into the starry night with only the chattering insects and the rustling bamboo for company.

: cH