Tuesday, 29 September 2015


a far-off country of which we know little. Not. Back in 2011 I advocated air strikes to stop Assad slaughtering his own people, some of whom had risen up in the Arab Spring and were looking for freedom. It didn't happen. Obama too fearful and pusillanimous, Cameron wanted to do it, sort of, but couldn't get it through Parliament because of an outbreak of silly not-in-my-namery (they're only brown-skin Ay-rabs, so it's not our fight, says the Left). France actually did do it, and has continued to do some of it. Whatever Francois Hollande might lack, it is not political courage. And, of course, Russia has got involved. Now why might that be? Ah yes, those pesky Chechens and Dagestanis and Ossetians. Muslims, every man jack of 'em (the women don't count, natch). Putin, and to some extent his predecessors, didn't dick around when it came to dealing with those towel-heads, oh, no. Invade Georgia? Sure, why not? Did that, in 2008. The world said nothing. Crush the Chechens? Yeah, after all you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. Chechnya, Dagestan and both Ossetias are corrupt hell-holes where human rights are non-existent. The world said nothing. Putin installed a tame warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, there in 2007. He has red hair, see?
pic Oleg Nikishin/Getty
Kadyrov likes wrestling and Kalashnikovs. So, where was I? Ah yes, Syria. Russia wants to keep Assad in power there, because the savage civil war has allowed that thing sometimes called ISIS to rise up (funded by Saudi Arabia), which is a Bad Thing. So ISIS should be trashed, so that Muslims in Russia remember who's the Daddy and don't get any funny ideas about taking over the country, or bits of it. Oh and Russia has always been mates with Syria and the Assad family, largely because they're not mates with some of the others in the region. Do try and keep up. And ISIS, as I said, has got to be trashed. Well, of course, ISIS would not even be there if there had been proper clinical strikes and Assad had been got rid of four years ago, with a post-Assad regime (done right this time) under international control. But Obama was too pussy, and it didn't happen. So we are where we are. But ISIS have still got to be trashed. And quite frankly I don't see any way other than by (for now) keeping Assad in place until ISIS have been pulverised. And then, well, then, we'll see. Sometimes, you have to  hold your nose and take the side of the odious and the dictatorial, against some who are worse.
Refugees pour out of Syria. Well, you would too, if you could. But of course not everyone seeking asylum in Europe who says they are a refugee from Syria actually is. It's quite a handy way to insert Islamic terrorism into the heart of Europe, where a welcome may be found in the tougher banlieues of Paris and Marseille, and in the Guardian-reading dinner parties of Islington. I write this as JC Superstar is making his keynote speech to Labour Party conference. JC, if another 7/7, or worse, happens on your watch, who will your friends be then?
Make no mistake, there is a war going on. And it is a war against "us". The West. Europe. America. Those of us who think democratic values may not be perfect but are kind of a better thing to have than everything else that is out there. So, what are you doing in the war? 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Hanya Yanagihara, 'A Little Life'

has now been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I am not one of those who reads every book on the shortlist, though I usually read one or two, plus the winner, because I know I will fail, and if reading ceases to be a joy and becomes a chore, then why do it? I do have my reading tasks (we firstborns are goal-oriented, and I am very Type A) - a chapter a day of non-fiction (currently 'The Third Reich, A New History', by Michael Burleigh, lorra laughs, NOT), one of something in French (currently 'Congo, une histoire' by David van Reybrouck, translated from the Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin, interesting) and, when I can, something in Russian, currently an odd little fable called in English 'The Garnet Bracelet', by Alexander Kuprin, seems to be about love. Oh well. Although some writers subvert the "system" by having very long or very short chapters, or no chapters at all. The swine. And then after I've read all that I indulge myself with fiction in English. I have my to-read list, both of print books and on the Kindle, about 30 of them at the moment. It stays fairly static, approximately one in and one out. When I see something reviewed that interests me, or a mention in another book, I write it in a notebook and buy or download two from that list a month. But every now and then I see a book mentioned that catches my interest, and I download it and put it to the front of the queue. One such was 'A Little Life'.

Boy did I not know what I was getting into. For a start it's 700 pages long (you can't tell so immediately on a Kindle) so took a while. It's about four young men starting out in New York, and their lives thereafter. It's deliberately non-specific as to when it takes place, clearly from about 30 years ago until about now, but there are no events, no politics, no 9/11, not even any named artists who are "real" (a lot of it takes place in the art world), so it is kind of affectless. There are four of them, but gradually two of them fade into the background (in one case with a bang), then there is a significant plot development with the third, and this leaves the fourth. The one no one, not even those closest to him, knows anything about. No spoiler to say that he suffered horrific abuse throughout his childhood, and that this is why he cannot form relationships. Three of them are creatives - an artist, an architect and an actor - but not this one. He likes mathematics for its purity, and the law for its rigour.

It's not flawless - two of them are from very modest backgrounds, but somehow end up wealthy and living in fabulous apartments, just what all ambitious young people who go to New York think is going to happen, and it never does, and some of them get taken up by rich benefactors, which also never happens. But hey, maybe that's the can-do of American life. I wouldn't really know. We Europeans know that our background and culture define us. That is our misfortune, perhaps. It's a bit implausible like that. And would someone with the emotional and physical health problems that Jude St Francis (how about THAT for a name?) has really be able to have such a brilliant career in law? Well, perhaps.

It's quite gay, but it's not a "gay novel". I think younger writers are more like that - sexuality as a continuum, not a state. Perhaps. I seem to be saying "perhaps" a lot about this book.

There's a good review here. Its headline says "subversive brilliance", and I think that's right. "Of course", children who have been abused grow up like - what, exactly? What do the first fifteen years of your life say about the rest of it? "Of course" people who have been abused look for love in the arms of an abuser. Except that they don't, not always, and sometimes they may find it in the arms of someone who actually loves them. Oddly for a book with an abused child as its centre, this book is about happiness, and friendship, and love. And here, the greatest of these is friendship.

This book made me think about friendship, and about kindness, and decide that without these two there is not much that is worth while in this life.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

the haters on the left up their game

the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, and thus of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, has had at least one apparently unintended consequence. Not of course the emergence of links to theocratic haters and approving references to the oppression of women and gays in various places - we all knew that parts of the left were happy with that - but personal hate speech directed against those who did and do not support Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Unfairly, often, because most UK Labour Party members are decent people who are prepared to work with and support a party leader they did not themselves vote for. I know I have heard from many who take that view. I do suspect that the haters may not even be long-standing Labour Party members themselves, but may be "three-pounders" (like me) who signed up just to vote in the leadership. But haters there are. Now we know there is plenty of hate on the left. As there is elsewhere. But it interesting how and where it tends to manifest itself.

Back before the 2008 US Presidential election I supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, not that I had a vote or the remotest scintilla of influence in that process. I received a flood of messages, over several weeks, containing fairly extreme hate speech, much of it to the effect that I would like to have sex with Barack Obama but that he wouldn't be interested in me (they didn't put it quite so politely as that) which explained my support for the somewhat older and female Hillary Clinton. It was all entirely personal, and as far as I know it was all from people I did not know personally. Most of it didn't appear in the comments on this blog, because I don't want to include hate speech in my publications if I can help it. It didn't bother me (I have had the great freedom for many years now of not giving a stuff what anyone thinks of me), but I found it interesting that a public, perhaps in US terms not dissimilar from those who chanted "Jez we can!" in the UK more recently, would engage in extreme ad hominem language rather than pointing out why and how their preferred candidate was better than mine. Well, we know what happened in that contest, and though I am still hopeful of Hillary for President, we shall see.

In the Labour Party leadership contest, things were a little quieter. But as election day approached, the volume went up. Shouts of "Tory, Tory, Tory!" at anyone who was not supporting Corbyn and who dared to say so publicly. No one seemed to be saying why Jeremy Corbyn was better than the others. Well, I voted, for Liz Kendall as it happens, and I put Yvette Cooper second. No other votes in the leadership contest. I was quite public about that. Then quite suddenly I found myself attacked. Because of Israel. When I hadn't been mentioning Israel. Now why would anyone feel the need to discuss Israel in the context of the Labour leadership election? Your guess is as good as mine, and I imagine our conclusions would be the same. Unfriended, left, right and centre. Though more friends were also gained by me as a result, if you treat Facebook as an index of friendship (which might be unwise).

So, why, when people discover that I did not support Jeremy Corbyn, do they start attacking about Israel? Even some who (self-declared) didn't vote Corbyn either have been doing this. And some I considered intelligent people are quite capable of calling me a "Zionist bitch" - thanks guys! and one said that the "considered view" (he didn't say by whom) was that the Israel-Palestine situation had not been resolved because of Israel's fault - but did not of course say why. The same person, in rather queeny petulant fashion (entirely in character) said "This is goodbye!" and gave as the reason that he had "dared to criticise Israel". Perhaps unwisely he used an email address that included his workplace letterhead, so that an unwary person might think he was writing on their behalf. Not me, don't worry. I won't grass you up.

On the whole, calling me a "Zionist Tory bitch" and sending me a picture of a gun and saying they know where I live is preferable to the above. Because it's honest.

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.