Tuesday, 25 August 2015

everybody hates the Jews

as the great Tom Lehrer once sang. Does Jeremy Corbyn? I think not, not personally. I think perhaps he is rather simple-minded on these matters. America, bad. Therefore, Israel, bad. Therefore, enemies of either one, good. I think it really is that simple. And it is for too many Labour Party members. Lack of thought results in howling denunciations of Israel "the apartheid state". That is Jeremy Corbyn's electorate for now. He doesn't need to pretend that he's not in bed with Jew-haters, because too many Labour Party members, and the "anti-politics" younger people many of whom have signed up as Labour supporters, have no problem with Jew-haters. Not because they are Jew-haters, but because they hate America. But Jeremy is not an idiot. He knows that if/when he wins he will have to face the Tories at the ballot box. They will not hesitate to throw the Jew-hating, terrorist-loving and dodgy associates in his face. So, he's equivocating on his support for those who thought the 9/11 slaughter was a good thing - oh but hang on, are they the same people who think it was all done by Jews, because Everybody Knows thousands of Jews stayed away from work at the World Trade Centre on 9/11 - it all gets so confusing - let's just put it down to What Everybody Knows.

What Everybody Knows. There is far too much of this around. Everybody Knows that Gaza is a prison camp. Er, no it's not. Everybody Knows that Hamas was democratically elected there. Er, no, they took power by throwing the other lot out of windows. Everybody Knows that Gaza is cruelly blockaded by Israel, starving its people. Er, no, Gaza is blockaded by Egypt.

And solidarity with women and gays in the Middle East? Don't look for that from Jeremy. His policy statement "Working With Women" says it all in its title. We, that is us Chaps, look for ways to "work with" those silly girls so they don't get all uppity and hormonal and start crying and stuff.

Everybody Knows. As so often, Lenny has the best words.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Fathomless Riches

Most of the popular tunes and fashionable beat combos of the 1980s are a closed book to me. But I do remember the Communards. Jimmy Somerville had the voice of an angel, and a rather spotty chest - I really don't like V-neck tops on men with nothing underneath - and that high-camp yearning they went in for spoke to me. That was the decade when it became OK to be gay and a pop star, among other things. It was also the decade when to be a gay man quite often meant you were dead, rather soon. I didn't remember the other half of the Communards, Richard Coles, at all. But he does have a rather good twitter feed, and now those tweets have been made into a book, which is his memoir. @RevRichardColes, which gives you a clue as to what he is doing now. Like most memoirs the good bits are at the beginning, about his childhood and family, and the dramatic moments in the middle. When he was a drug-addled star, he says, he might have bought a speedboat. He might have, but he isn't sure, and he doesn't know where it is now, if he did. I liked quite a lot in this book. It is relentlessly honest, as Coles has to be, at least now that he is an Anglican priest. He even admits that at one time he pretended to be HIV-positive - that shocked me. He said later in an interview that it was only his sexual timidity that kept him alive. Although I must say I don't think it is particularly sexually timid to drive out into the countryside and have sex in laybys with men you have never met before. Coles lives, allegedly, a celibate life these days, as the Church of England says its gay ordained must (impertinently, in my view). For me there wasn't quite enough in his book about his life in the Church (which came after the drugs and the stardom), but I guess he thought his pop-picker readers wouldn't be interested in that. On the contrary, I contend. I hope Coles writes another book. Oh and nice reference to Gilbert and George (isn't it?) on the cover.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

turning Japanese

Seventy years ago Japan surrendered after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This remains controversial. There are many historians and scholars (the late Norman Geras was one) who think that that act was a war crime, and many (Oliver Kamm is another) who think (as did and do a number of respected Japanese scholars) that the bombing was justified on the grounds that both American and Japanese casualties were thereby avoided. Well, we'll never know. Whatiffery helps no one. Norm and Oliver were/are in other ways part of the same strand of politics, what has been called the anti-totalitarian left, and that is where I locate myself too. I can strongly recommend Kamm's 2005 book "Anti-Totalitarianism", which is one of the early works in this canon. The different arguments they both put forward - was Hiroshima/Nagasaki the end of the Pacific war or the start of the Cold War? make endlessly fascinating reading.

The UK's role in what happened in Japan was rather minimal. There was little input from the UK during the ten years of US occupation of Japan. But, then as now, the UK's role in Allied intelligence gathering was a key one. So Japanese experts were needed as soon as Japan entered the war in 1941. And there were none. Just about no one in Britain could speak or understand Japanese, and Japanese studies had not been especially popular among intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by contrast with, for instance, Arabic studies, which remains highly popular to this day among the top mandarins of Whitehall and, until the welcome advent of Tony Blair, had a significant influence on UK policy in the Middle East under successive governments.

What was to be done? The men were at war, and the men who knew anything about East Asia or spoke any of its languages had gone to work in places like Singapore and Shanghai, and most of them were now prisoners of war. I know, thought the government, we'll get some boys (not girls, obviously) out of the schools and fast-track them in the Japanese language. They did just that (they did it with Turkish and Persian too, because, well, you never know which way certain cats will jump), and within a year or two they had their Japanese experts. Some of them went on to be academics in the field, and one of them went on to be chairman of British Rail. A great piece about all this in the BBC Magazine here. Thanks Neil for pointing it out to me.

What might be a surprise is that the fast-track programme for Japanese still exists, though not quite in the same way. I went through it myself in the late 1970s when I was working for British intelligence (sssh!) and they still couldn't find Japanese linguists in the UK. The programme however took place largely in Japan, which obviously in 1942 it did not, and that is where I spent my time in 1979 and 1980. At the time the British Embassy language school in Kamakura, Japan was shared with the then West German government, so for three British students there was one West German. Usually these students were diplomats near the begining of their careers, but exceptionally (I'm not sure this was ever done again) there were two students, me and a colleague from GCHQ, who had diplomatic cover for the duration of our studies. An interesting time. I was examined orally for the interpretership by the then Emperor's personal interpreter, and *modest cough* got the top mark that year.

the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kamakura

Sir Hugh Cortazzi, a former British ambassador to Japan, is writing a history of SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and this is what has apparently inspired the BBC to take a look at these matters in the piece linked to. I hope he also takes a little look at the links which certainly existed at one time, and may still do for all I know, between SOAS and British intelligence. While the schoolboys referred to above were being fast-tracked in 1942 or thereabouts, SOAS was not using its Bloomsbury building where it still is today, but premises above St. James's Park Tube station. Those premises used to be called Palace Chambers (you can still see the faded sign if you look carefully, I went past there not that long ago) and were used by GCHQ for some of its activities. I have worked there myself.

I fled GCHQ in 1984 when they banned the unions, and joined the BBC World Service. I worked from time to time at the BBC Japanese Service, closed down in the 1990s, which was one of the few Japan-related organisations not headed by a graduate of that fast-track service. Its head was John Newman, who had acquired his Japanese by being a judo champion and studying judo there, and by being coach to the UK Olympic judo team in Tokyo in 1964. I always thought John was regarded with faint suspicion by the establishment fellows. John Newman died in 1993, aged only 57.

Tendrils of connection. Would make a film, the story of the above.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Go Set a Watchman

the title is from the Bible (Isaiah 21,6) and in I think all the English versions has a comma: Go, set a watchman. The text is about conscience, and that is what the title of this book means. The watchman is your conscience, so you will know if you are doing something wrong.

There cannot be many who have escaped the publicity around the publication of Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set A Watchman. It is the one she wrote first, 55 years ago, and her editor preferred the back story, of Scout Finch's childhood, and her father's defence of a black man accused of the rape of a white girl. So she wrote that instead, and the world got To Kill A Mockingbird.

I have read Mockingbird at least a dozen times since I was about ten years old. I read it in different ways over the years, as you do. When I was ten I enjoyed the child's-eye view, and I envied those children the father they called by his first name and who never came into their rooms without knocking. I don't mean anything sinister about my own childhood by that, it's just that the notion of personal autonomy for children didn't mean that much to my parents until we children reached our teens, and sometimes not then. Later I loved the notion of respect for all people as individuals that is at the heart of Mockingbird. But as I grew older I began to worry about the book . I began to see that something was missing. There was a mystery at its heart. This was not helped by the film, excellent though it was, which showed Atticus Finch as a strong and sensitive hero played by Gregory Peck. Many of those who have complained about Watchman for its portrayal of Atticus as much more flawed and complex than he appears in Mockingbird are thinking about the film and not the book. The complexity is there all right in Mockingbird, it is just portrayed as a child would experience it, so it is not to be explained.

When I first knew that Go Set A Watchman was coming out, my first thought was that here was a predatory publisher/editor looking to make some money from a vulnerable elderly woman before she died. My second thought was that maybe now we would learn something about the mystery at the heart of Mockingbird (critics never seemed to talk about any mystery, but I always found it mysterious). My third thought was that maybe she would address the notion of race, because if you are a white Southerner as Harper Lee is you probably have to. In particular the notion, archaic now but surely normal in the 1950s, that if black people are to be saved from injustice and terrible fates then white people must do it for them. Well, address the notion of race Harper Lee does, and it is shocking.

"If the Negro vote edged out the white you'd have Negroes in every county office"... "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?" This is Atticus Finch speaking. And yet nothing in Mockingbird contradicts this. Atticus Finch says in Mockingbird you need to get inside the skin of another person to see things as they do. But - now Scout realises - he meant another white person's skin. The fact that racist language wasn't used by her father when she was growing up meant that she grew up colour blind. And in the South of the 1950s that is very blind indeed.

A US bookstore called Brilliant Books is offering refunds to people who bought Watchman and found it not what they had expected. I think this is a mistake. Because what do we "expect" when we buy a book? To enjoy it? To respect it? That it should be just the same as everything else that author has written? I submit, none of those things. The most interesting writers are those that make you wonder, when a new book of theirs comes out "What have they got up to this time?"

The (mostly) science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin writes about Go Set A Watchman on her blog. She wonders, as I have over the years, why Harper Lee never wrote anything else after To Kill A Mockingbird. Maybe, she says, because that book wasn't true. Because it was dishonest. Maybe, I wonder too, if Harper Lee was a bit dismayed by the huge international bestseller status Mockingbird immediately acquired and has never lost. That people regularly put it down as their all-time favourite book (I have done this too). Le Guin ends by saying that Harper Lee "wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill A Mockingbird evades."

Go Set A Watchman is shocking. Such a book could not be written now, I am quite sure. The South, just at the start of civil rights, knowing that everything was about to change and fearing chaos, and yes, being swamped. Class, and race, and how we fail to see what is before our eyes because it does not fit with how we have decided things and people are. All these are timeless matters. And not that many writers have seriously tried to ask questions about them.

Harper Lee, I salute you. If you can, please tell us more. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Labour leadership: Corbyn to storm in?

So they say. The party membership, as so often in its history, has gone bonkers. Now I am not so sure that Corbyn will in fact storm in to the leadership of the Party That Prefers Opposition, as party elections are carried out in the Alternative Vote system, so while it may appear that Corbyn has a majority of first preferences, that may quite well not add up to 50%, and second and third preferences may give it to Andy Burnham, or indeed one of the others. Incidentally it is Yvette Cooper who has made the best joke of the campaign so far, calling the candidates "ABBA" - the blonde one, the dark one, the bearded one, and the other one. *Resists temptation to use pic of ABBA in this post* and anyway they are super-strict with their legals, and it's actually quite hard to download a free-to-use picture of the Swedish foursome that is any good.

Yes. The bonkers party. It is well known that the activists - those who attend the monthly General Committee (GC) meetings, the GC being the sovereign body of a constituency or other local party, are almost all clinically insane, and those that are not are swiftly hounded out, and routinely denounced in the local media. Read Robert Conquest on Stalin's years in power, as I am currently doing, and you will recognise your GC. It is also well known that the "grass-roots" members (this means the mad ones) prefer being in opposition. They HATED Tony Blair, and they HATED the 13 years of Labour government we had from 1997 to 2010. There were HORRID things like the minimum wage, like money for working families, like free TV licences, like - oh, please yourselves. I was a Labour MP for eight of those years, and not once did anyone at the GC say it was a good thing that we had the minimum wage, or Sure Start, or any of the other goodies Tony Blair as Prime Minister and Gordon Brown as Chancellor made sure the people had. No. But they moaned and carped and nitpicked endlessly, mainly about foxhunting and the Middle East. After a while it got so that Jewish members had to stay away, as they were howled down whenever they tried to speak. It was that bad. And this was in the late 1990s, when the economy was pretty strong, when my constituency had zero structural unemployment, and when the world was a bit more peaceful than it appears now.

What a waste. In the good years - yes, the Blair years, or go back to the Wilson years if you are old enough, those years when we had Labour governments - the party right up to the top was pointlessly distracting itself with petty infighting, persecution and bullying. The whips bullied, not the rebels, but the loyal backbenchers. Ann Taylor and Hilary Armstrong as successive Chief Whips took particular pleasure in this, and where are they now? Oh yes, in the Lords, being smug on £300 a day. Taylor in particular is rather stupid, well you'd have to be to think Roy Hattersley was hunky at any time in history. Local parties persecuted, not the corrupt and the racist (all parties have those) but hardworking councillors and MPs. And no one cared. The great resource the party had in those days, its people who were not part of corrupt cabals but who worked hard as volunteers for the cause, or who had been elected because the British people wanted a Labour government led by Tony Blair, whether Labour members liked that or not, was wasted. Most of us came through it more or less in one piece. Some did not. Margaret Moran is a broken woman. Fiona Jones is dead. Anne Moffat was deselected by a small cabal of corrupt men (there is always a small cabal of corrupt men, the trick is not to let them take charge) and the party leadership laughed in her face.

So let's bring it down on their heads. I disagree so profoundly with most of what Jeremy Corbyn has to say that it's not even worth my while deconstructing any of it. But part of me says - serve them right. Destroy the party. You might as well, now that between Gordon Brown and the mad GC men you've contrived to keep Labour out of power for at least a generation, if not for ever. Scorch the earth, and start again.

And the people, in all this?

Friday, 22 May 2015

Tabloid Secrets

I was most interested to read this book, largely because the News of the World, whatever you thought about it, was a phenomenon. I think that's the right word. There never was another paper quite like it. I used to read it regularly. Even in the fairly short time since the paper closed, at the behest of its owner, well I won't bore you with why that happened, but there was phone hacking and a whole bunch of stuff, and I suppose the brand finally became tainted, the dead-tree press has become less relevant, and less important to people's lives, and perhaps as a consequence, people have become more credulous.

My grandfather, a butcher by trade who was of Welsh heritage and worked in the Harrods food hall in the last years of his working life, used to read the Daily Mirror. He read it every day, and was highly sceptical about what he read there. He thought the government mostly lied to the people, and that most of the papers copied out their lies most of the time. He was probably right. He used to like the News of the World too, but my grandmother wouldn't have it in the house because of its raunchy content, and because she thought reading it might give my grandfather "ideas" - what sort of ideas, she never said, though my brother and I used to try and persuade her to.

My parents used to read the Daily Sketch, and later on The Times. Most of the rest of our family thought they were getting above themselves for reading the "Top People's Paper", as it styled itself at one time. My father was fairly sceptical about what he read too, but less so than my grandfather had been. He used to wonder aloud about what was "meant" by what was published. He knew there was another message there under the headlines, but he wasn't quite sure what it was. My mother very rarely commented on the news. When the Profumo affair broke I was nine years old, and my parents got their "information" about it from the newspapers they read. I remember their rather clumsy attempts to use coded language when they talked about that story in front of their children. I think they were trying to avoid one of us asking "What's a call girl?"

I read newspapers when I was younger, to my shame the Guardian at one time, poisonous racist rag that it is, and I read The Times on line sometimes now - I get bored and let my subscription lapse, and then I start again - but newspapers aren't part of my life any more. I use public transport every day, and you never see people reading newspapers on there any more. Freesheet giveaways, maybe.

Neville Thurlbeck, sometime news editor and chief reporter on the News of the World, describes the old Fleet Street and tabloid reporting as a "vanished world", and so it is. Twitter and so on have more or less put paid to it. And we are all the more gullible as a result. Retweet something when you have no idea whether it is true or not, which people do every day in their millions, and where in all that is knowledge? There used to be a saying up north "some folks'll believe owt" I think it was, perhaps regional linguists can correct me (I'm from London and the South). And so they will.

If you read this book expecting to discover the vanished dark arts of story-getting, you will be disappointed, although the blurb tells you that is just what you will get. No. It gives you background on the chasing around that goes with breaking a tabloid story, David Beckham's affairs, that sort of thing. And as such is good fun, and rather interesting. I remember a lot of stories from the NotW (I was even in one once, the headline was "Woman On Top"), and it would have been great to find out some of the back stories, but most people are more interested in David Beckham than they are in some choirmaster being caught out fiddling with a choirboy. though they shouldn't be.

Of course, there was "the one that got away". A senior politician, whose sexuality was not what he made it out to be, allegedly, but who was never exposed. If he had been, the political landscape would have been "radically altered", we are told. Well, who might THAT be, then?

I think this book is rather a valuable contribution to the history of the media. Journalists, other than very pompous ones who think themselves historians and so on, don't usually write books that make a contribution to the sum of human knowledge. This one has.  

Friday, 8 May 2015

two blues in Reading

is this 1992 all over again? It has been suggested that it is. A Tory leader, slightly unexpectedly to be Prime Minister again when the polls said he probably wouldn't be - a Tory leader the people don't exactly loathe, as many of them did Thatcher, but don't warm to either - a Tory leader, however many of his party do loathe, cordially or otherwise - and Europe the Big Issue. The only difference seems to be that John Major didn't know to begin with how much of an issue Europe was for his backbenchers and members, and David Cameron does know. Well, 1992 was a tragedy for those of us who were Labour activists at the time, but after all it was 23 years ago, and surely things must have changed since then? Not for the Tory backwoods, it seems. A referendum on membership of the EU there shall be, we are told. A profound mistake. Cameron surely knows this, but has to do it anyway. If the UK leaves the EU, will it leave the Council of Europe too? (Google it, ffs.) The European Convention on Human Rights? Will it have the choice?

Both Reading's Conservative MPs were re-elected yesterday. Not a surprise. Victoria Groulef in Reading West was the better prospect for Labour, and there is no real evidence that the Reading party bigwigs put any effort or resources into Reading East, so nothing has changed there since approximately 1993. As recently as Tuesday this week the Reading Evening Post told us (so it must be true) that former MP for Reading West Martin Salter had personally written to everyone in Reading West asking them to support Victoria Groulef. Must have cost him a hell of a lot in stamps. Because he'd have to have paid the postage personally, and then it would have to have been declared as a donation, or - oh, please yourselves. However, getreading's @LindaAFort tweeted that Martin Salter had started briefing against Groulef during the night: this was confirmed by BBC South. Both used a picture, now mysteriously vanished from their Twitter feeds, showing Groulef leaving the count alone, apparently in tears, with a number of Labour councillors with their backs to her. All that is now to be found from that time from the sainted Linda Fort is "Labour's Victoria Groulef is now nowhere to be seen after looking close to tears". Well, yes. that's what the Reading boys are like, people. Victoria should have expected it.

Linda Fort also tweeted overnight "Former Labour councillor John Howarth said he predicted Labour's loss at the General Election a couple of months ago". That would be early March or so, then. Now usually I avert my eyes when Howarth tweets anything, as I have a sensitive nature and he seems to like tweeting revolting photographs of glutinous carb-rich meals, but I have taken the trouble to look back, and he has tweeted nothing of the kind in the last three months. So, perhaps he wrote it on his political blog? Nope. He doesn't write anything much on there. On 5th January he said Labour was "hanging on". Then nothing until 29th April, when he said Miliband was looking "more plausible". And - that is it. Silence. It was all lies.

I think I shall pay more attention to Linda Fort in future. She is often the bearer of delightful news, such as that Martin Salter is about to become a TV presenter. My first thought, as I am sure was yours, was that he is to replace Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear, Salter being a notorious petrolhead and lover of the blacktop and all things motorised. But, sadly, no. Still, nearly as good. He is the new presenter of a show called "Fishing Britain". You can find it on YouTube here. It's not actually about fishing, it's about Martin Salter. He tells us he's been to Argentina and he's going to a place he coyly calls "the foothills of the Himalayas". So there you are, fans, it's not all politics, the delights just keep on coming. He shakes hands with someone in a shop! He walks past the camera wearing an anorak! This is cutting-edge home video  television. If you miss it, you miss out.

Now, in newly Tory Britain, wish the new MPs well. It's not an easy job. I was doing it back before social media, when all we had was email and letters. This is what the people said they wanted when they voted, so give it to them, please. A better Britain. Er...