Friday, 22 January 2016

new year travelling: Year Zero in the Khmer lands

as I have posted previously, changes gonna come. Be careful what you wish for ... in spring last year I was thinking that my life was in a bit of a rut and I needed to make some kind of change, but could not think what. The cancer scare that turned out not to be, but likely to be within five years, was part but not all of that thinking. I didn't know then that significant other was thinking just the same thing, and wishing for something to change. He didn't have the quantity or quality of work he wanted to do in Strasbourg, and I did but was feeling trapped and hoping to do something different before retirement and consequent loss of income and/or health problems caught up with me. Well, with that, significant other was offered and accepted a job in Cambodia. He went off in June to do the summer work at a UK university he has done for the past few years, came back in September for three days, and went off again to Cambodia for a year. At least. He left all his possessions for me to sort out and put into storage, without even mentioning them before he left - and he is a hoarder and I am very much not - but that is another matter. So I put our place on the market - we had discussed this - and asked to work at 90% of contract instead of full time for 2016. This was agreed, so I carry on working as normal, except that I get another 21 days' holiday for this year. I took 31 days' leave, starting on 8th January, and flew off to join him in Cambodia. I have always wanted to be a trailing spouse, and this is as close as I am going to get at my age.

I had never been to South-East Asia at all before coming here. Er, it's hot. Cambodia is tropical. Half the year in an oven and half in a sauna, they say. This is the oven half. I chose this time of the year to travel here because (1) the Alsace winter is no fun; it's more the dark than the cold that's hard to bear (2) in January and February there's nothing much to do on the allotment. Our place is sold - the keys were handed over 48 hours before I left, and the last three days in Strasbourg spent in a hotel - so with no housing or utility costs for the next few weeks, and significant other with his own flat, it was feasible for me to travel and stay there for a while. So, hey, a big change.

We know the history of Cambodia, or we think we do. The Killing Fields, the Khmer Rouge. It was 40 years ago, thus in living memory. In Phnom Penh, and elsewhere, you quite often see people with no foot, no leg, or no arm. They are all, pretty much, or appear to be, fifty-something. You don't see many others that age at all. About a quarter of the population was lost to starvation, murder and death by forced labour. Genocide, let's not mince our words. The effects are still felt now, as the intellectuals were killed first and the universities closed, meaning that when it all reopened there was no one much left to do the teaching. If you were alive and could read and write after that you could teach, so quality education is only starting to be available now.

Anyway, enough of the history. Others have written it better than I could. I'm currently reading Ben Kiernan's 'How Pol Pot Came To Power' (pub. 1985, updated 2004 - an academic history which is readable and a good source book) and in the first few days I was here I re-read Margaret Drabble's 'The Gates of Ivory' (pub. 1991 - the Kiernan is in the bibliography: a novel which is full of great stuff and picks up most of the characters from the earlier two in her trilogy 'The Radiant Way'). Recommended. The late Doris Lessing wrote somewhere that her generation (born in the 1920s and 30s, the one before the boomers, with the war babies' mini-generation slotted in between, what has been called the Greatest Generation, though not by me) was the first to go primarily to works of fiction for information about the world. And so it is and has continued.

The Khmer Rouge wore uniforms like these. They wanted the purest communist land, starting at Year Zero. They left behind - well, not much really. And the Khmers picked themselves up and started rebuilding their country. What was left of it.
photo taken by me at Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, Phnom Penh

And here is a survivor. I met him today near Battambang, Cambodia's second city. He speaks OK English and better French. His name is Suon Som and I was pleased to hear some things about his life. He says he is 74 years old. He says he was a general in the army - careful not to say which army or exactly when; the framed picture of him in uniform he showed me is very hard to date, and you can't see the uniform properly. He also showed me a certificate authorising him to be an election observer in the Cambodian National Assembly election of 2003, an observation mission partly funded by DFID. He also says that Johnny Hallyday came to see him in Cambodia. Well, maybe he did. Though so far I can't verify that Johnny ever went to Cambodia, but why would he not, he has many fans there, or had. I'd love to go back and talk with Suon Som again.
Suon taken by me 22nd January 2016

Friday, 4 December 2015

the haters are here

After the vote this week on action in Syria, the result of which I was very pleased to see (and Jeremy Corbyn was not, it appears) Labour MPs who voted with the Government, and some others who did not, have received death threats. Oh yes, pictures of guns and such like. One at least is under police protection now.

Do they think this is new? It is not. I was sent pictures of guns and knives, and gun-related pornography, and threatened with rape and murder, a number of times when I was an MP, and not to do with my vote on action in Iraq (in favour, since you ask). On the latter I had a lot of tedious whining from people who read the Guardian and didn't give a stuff about the slaughter in Iraq, and also some pacifist representations from people who thought there should be no military action anywhere, ever, by anybody. This last laudable, but impossible. No, the death threats came - you are ahead of me - when I mentioned Israel, which I did not do very often. I am a Zionist, but did not and do not go on about it. Also, ten years ago and more Jew-hatred was not so much in evidence on the left in the UK as it is now. But it was there. The death threats also came, slightly to my surprise, after I left Parliament (in 2005), and related to my support for Hillary Clinton rather than Barack Obama as Democratic candidate for the US presidency in 2008. I didn't expect misogynist hatred from that quarter, but I got plenty, and it was pointed out to me that Americans have guns, and that those guns would be used on me if I didn't shut up.

Well, I didn't cry about all that. I didn't like it, but I didn't cry. I certainly didn't ask for police protection. How wimpish is that? In my time an MP was seriously injured and his staff member killed by a mentally ill constituent with a samurai sword. Anyone in public life puts themselves in that kind of danger, and of course precautions must be taken, especially to protect staff. But - if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen, as someone once said. And if you don't make any enemies, it means you've never done anything. I don't know where the idea came from that we should all live and work in safe spaces. There are no safe spaces, and arguably if we try and keep ourselves safe all the time we place ourselves in more danger than if we don't - because we then think that nothing will ever happen to us. Yes, it might.

In my time communication was by email, and not everyone used even that. But I saw straight away that people were more willing to use hate speech in an email than they would have been in a letter, on the telephone or in person - though there was some of all that too. Even more so now, on Twitter. In public life you just get used to it. There's no rule that says everyone should be nice to you if you are an MP. In fact, to think that people should be nice to you borders on the narcissistic.

On Iraq (and there are similarities with the situation today as regards Syria, whatever anyone says) I voted with the Government, for military action, and never lost a moment's sleep over it, because I believed it was right, and was glad to have the opportunity to vote that way. I was very clear about that publicly. But there were still foolish letters in the local newspapers berating me for not voting with my conscience. As if voting with your conscience always means voting against the Government. I am glad I did not have to suffer the torments my neighbouring Labour MP Martin Salter had to at the time, desperately juggling two conflicting stories - in Westminster he said he was trying to persuade recalcitrant Labour MPs not to vote against the Government, because he wanted a government job to be helpful to Tony, and in Reading he said he was voting against the Government in line with his convictions and to appease the mosque show the people of Reading that he was on their side and not the Government's. In the end he was forced into the impossible position that everyone is forced into who tries to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds - he abstained on the vote, lied publicly in Reading about how he had voted, and was forced to stand down in 2010 when the issue refused to go away. I had none of that. I pretty much always tell the truth, not because I am especially virtuous but because it's so restful. You never have to keep your story straight or remember what you told the last person.

So, MPs who are worried and upset about the hate they are getting, and about possible threats to themselves and their families - relax. You probably don't need police protection. Once your home address becomes public you must either move house or put in very serious security measures, naturally. And vote with your conscience. It's the easiest way.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Eve Babitz

photo Julian Wasser
I confess I had never heard of Eve Babitz until just recently. But I had seen this picture before, "Nude Considering Her Next Move", by Julian Wasser, Eve Babitz is the woman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. She bowled over just about every man she met in Hollywood in the 1960s. Including Jim Morrison. Harrison Ford. Oh and of course Warren Beatty. Parents a Jewish violinist and an artist from Texas, Eve grew up in Hollywood, and has never really left it. Igor Stravinsky was her godfather. She graduated from Hollywood High and became, in her words, an adventuress. What distinguishes her from, eg, Edie Sedgwick, is that she wasn't daft enough to OD at 27. Nobody's fool, talented, witty, never pretentious or self-pitying, the woman can write. I am at present gloriously wallowing in "Eve's Hollywood", a book of very short autobiographical essays first published in 1972 and 1974. What a terrific broad she is. She doesn't write any more - she is in her 70s now - since a freak accident in 1997, in which the cigar she was smoking set fire to her skirt and burned two-thirds of her body. But she has written a lot, and she gets it like most never did. Here:

"The best capsule description of F. Scott Fitzgerald I ever read was a brief biography which began 'Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and died 44 years later in Hollywood.'"

Read Eve. I'm your fan, Eve.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Shawcross and his unfashionable views

This book, by William Shawcross, who is an intellectual and (kind of) a part of the Establishment in the UK - I know there are many who do not like his writing, but I do - was published rather a long time ago, after 9/11 and after the invasion of Iraq by the US-led Allies, but not long after. It took some work to track it down once I became aware of its existence. The views and ideas it contains were unfashionable at the time, and not only among the complacent chattering Guardianistas, who unfortunately are still with us, but broadly unfashionable in every sense, which is why the book sank without trace. I think I paid about a euro for it from some obscure book dealer, after Amazon tried to tell me it was unobtainable. A pity. I don't like buying second-hand books, especially if the author is still alive, as the creator of the work gets nothing from it, and Lord knows it's hard enough to get paid to write anything at all. But it is worth reading this book, I promise you, even if your prejudices, fully formed beliefs, intellectual worldview, whatever, compel you to think he is wrong.

It starts this way: "The Arab narrative of the 'Fallujah butchery is ... pernicious nonsense." About 270 were killed in Fallujah, almost all of them fighters, almost all of those former Iraqi army officers under Saddam. He quotes the Iranian journalist Amer Taheri on the killing of the American hostage Paul Johnson at that time: "Paul Johnson was killed by lies spread by Arab elites ... he was killed by the over 1,500 Arab lawyers who have volunteered to defend Saddam Hussein but who were nowhere to be seen when he was engaged in genocide against the Iraqi people." Shawcross says "Saddam may not have been an immediate threat but he was an inevitable one." He notes (in his preface to a later edition) that the Arab Spring had its harbingers here, in 2003.

UN weapons inspectors were banned from Iraq in 1998, and the Allies bombed Iraq that year. Remember that? Remember the millions marching against it? Nor me. One member of my local Labour Party at the time timidly approached me to express disquiet about the bombing of a sovereign nation. But only one. UNSCOM's final report on this, in 1999, said that vast numbers of WMDs could not be accounted for. Shawcross goes so far as to give the need to contain Iraq in the 1990s as the reason for the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia.

Shawcross is good on the humbug there is about the "neocons". At the time of that liberal hero JFK's presidency, in 1962, a legal opinion given by the Justice Department noted "the UN Charter does not prohibit the taking of unilateral preventive action in self-defence prior to the occurrence of an armed attack." No. It did not so prohibit then, and it does not now. Shawcross concludes "Surely everyone would agree that it would have been better if the United States had pre-empted 9/11 by confronting Al Qaeda and the Taliban before September 2001. There was ample cause." Yes.

Very few European intellectuals saw 9/11 as a threat. One who did was Ralf Dahrendorf (contrast the late Gunter Grass) who said that first, Western values do exist; second, power is needed to defend them; third, defence might have to be done by force of arms. Michael Ignatieff and Bernard Kouchner were two others who took this view.

"The Iraqis could not change their own tyrannical government; only outside intervention could do that. There was no better case in the world for such intervention. Tony Blair himself put the issue succinctly later when he told the House of Commons, 'When people say to me, why are you risking everything ... on this issue? I say I do not want to be the prime minister at whom people point a finger back in history and say: 'He knew perfectly well that the threats were there and he did not do anything about it.'"

I cite this book, and quote from it, to indicate that what "everyone" knows, and what "everyone" thinks do not really exist. What you think, and what I think, may differ. We may both find equally sound and convincing bases for our views, and argue them effectively. But a plurality of views there always is, and this must continue. At this time, soon after the savagery of the killings in Paris, and as I write in France under a state of emergency, there is a dismaying chorus of voices, at least in English, informing us what "everyone thinks" and what "everyone knows" - usually that such killings are the fault of "the West". That the Bataclan murders are France's fault for conducting air strikes on Islamic State. Leave them alone and they'll leave us alone. Idiocy. they have already declared war on "us". Hoping they'll leave us alone is like feeding a lion, in the hope that it will eat you last.

The West is at war,whether it wants to be or not. That war started a long time ago. It was formally declared much later, in the 1990s, and Bill Clinton did more or less nothing about it. It was stepped up in 2001, and it has been going on since. You and I cannot save ourselves from attack by Islamist terrorists. But if we shut up, if we blame the West for the attacks, if we say in Nick Cohen's ironic words "Kill us, we deserve it", we are complicit in the ultimate victory of the death-loving barbarians.

As I write there is a hostage crisis in Bamako, Mali. It is taking place at the Radisson Blu hotel in that city, whose guests are not that likely to be Malian farmers or workers. There are signs that it is about to be resolved without the bloodletting we saw in Paris a week ago. I hope so. But hey, that's only over there in Africa.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

downsizing life

a lot of people downsize some time after their children are grown and gone. Move to a smaller house, move away from where their children grew up, perhaps take early retirement. That last is less likely for my generation - we are fitter and healthier than our parents were at our age, for the most part, because we were better nourished as children than they were. We boomers were pre junk food, remember, and we played out unsupervised for hours every day in almost any weather. Our own children (I had mine when I was young, and they are in their 30s now) were more supervised than we were, and their physical activity was more organised - things like swimming club and gym club, which my siblings and I did not have. Mine played out, and rode bikes on the road on their own, but a lot of their friends did not, and of course we lived an urban life. Even then rural children were less likely to be physically active than urban ones, and more likely to be driven everywhere. It's much more so now. My two granddaughters are in outer London, and are lucky enough (because their parents were committed to the idea) to live in a housing development where there are safe places for them to play more or less unsupervised.

I am likely to be forced to retire in three or four years' time. I don't want to. I want to work until I really need a rest, and/or until health problems force me to stop. But I work for an international institution that is not subject to EU law and has a fixed retirement age. This is pernicious, but is how it is.

The cancer I had a scare about a few months ago may become a reality: my French gastroenterologist has told me he thinks it will, in that cheery way they have, and if it does I may have five years maximum from that point. But if, as I think is more likely, it does not (oesophagus, since you ask, caused by smoking), I may have getting on for 40 more years to live. As I now have arthritis, kicked off by the accident I had last year (nobody knows why this happens, but it nearly always does), the quality of that life may deteriorate unpleasantly as time goes on - or I may have one joint replaced after another as technology improves, and still be riding my bike when I am 100.

Whatever happens, one lesson I have learned in recent years (I learned it from my daughter, but that is another story) is that if you are going to make a change in your life, make it when you choose to and when you can control the process - don't make it when you are in a cleft stick and have no other choice. This applies to the ending of a relationship or a marriage (and no one says "bravo" to  you about that one, no matter what the outcome or prior situation) and to moving house/changing the way you live. Move from a house with stairs to a flat on one level before you start falling down the stairs and breaking your hips. Move to within walking distance of shops and public transport before you are forced by health problems to stop driving. End a bad relationship before it damages you so much that you're no longer capable of positive action of any kind, and don't worry about "whose fault" it is that the relationship is bad. Become an accomplished online shopper and consumer of services before health problems make you housebound.

All this means that you will often be seen as doing things "too soon", or that those around you will be bemused as to why you are doing them at all. I am currently in the process of selling my home. Well, I think I am, but you know how these things are. I know that some around me think I am crazy for doing this. I intend, not to buy another place, but to rent, at least until I have the retirement plans I am being forced to make firmly in place. In any event the place I live in after this will be smaller than my current place, which is too big to live alone in. Why live with rooms you don't use but have to clean?

Alone. Yes. Significant other has departed. Not from me, but from Europe, to work in Cambodia for at least a year. This has been part of the inspiration for me to make these changes. But not the whole of it. It's time to do it. Live in a clean, clear, smaller space, and use the income I have to do things rather than to have things. As part of this I will be working 90% instead of full-time from 1st January, which will give me enough time (I'm using the pay cut to buy more holiday) to travel. First, of course, to Cambodia, where I have never been. I'll be there in January and will stay for six weeks. Part-time, but keeping up full pension contributions. I'm not THAT daft.

No one was ever on their deathbed saying they wished they'd spent more time scrubbing the skirting boards.

I'm 62 next birthday. It's time to live.   

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Stephen Kotkin, 'Stalin, Paradoxes of Power'

This is a splendid book. Apparently it is the first of a trilogy, and I for one am eagerly anticipating the next one. Highly readable, and brings out the humanity of Iosip Vissarionovich Jugashvili, though it is far from an apology for Stalinism. (I shudder when I think of the apologist for Stalinism I was at times in my youth, but we learn). He has excellent contemporary sources, available of course only some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia's first genuine universal suffrage election took place in November 1917. Lenin had been "against the whole notion of elections ", but changed position at this time. The country voted Socialist. The Constituent Assembly thus elected met for one day. Then the Bolshevik members walked out. The next day, when delegates arrived to resume the session, armed guards refused them entry. Trotsky wrote of the Constituent Assembly just before this "We are not about to share power with anyone". Lenin then named the Petrograd Soviet "a higher form of democracy", and later all mention of the Constituent Assembly was erased from Soviet sources. I didn't know any of this, or I have not retained it from what I read in earlier years, and I should have, because I purported to study Soviet history at one time. But I actually think the Soviet history I was taught at university never told us that. Those were different times, and this is a major contribution to the history of the early 20th century.

There are splendid small reminders in this book that also help us to understand the politics of today, such as "Poland did not exist between 1795 and 1918" *ducks for cover*. And not least that Lenin's cook was Vladimir Putin's grandfather! Imagine, as I do, the infant Vladimir hearing at his grandfather's knee tales of the Lenin kitchen!

It seems that Kotkin has understood, as most other historians do not seem to have, perhaps because they are usually not politicians, why Stalin became the ultimately unchallenged leader he did, when he was not the most intelligent, nor the most erudite, nor even the most politically committed or passionate, of the candidates for that role in the burgeoning Soviet Union. When the gamble [of forced collectivisation of the countryside, about which the late Robert Conquest wrote magnificently in Harvest of Sorrow, please read it] met mass resistance and unfathomable ruin, Stalin saw it through to completion". Those are the politicans we remember. The ones who do it ALL.

Kotkin tells us that Lenin's 'Testament', which appeared not to endorse Stalin as Lenin's successor, was used against Stalin, as you might expect it to be. So Stalin picked up his enemies' strength and used it against them, word by word, line by line. And won. This is the counter-intuitive aspect of political life - use your enemies' strength against them. Drew Westen has written an impressive book about just this, called 'The Political Brain'.

Kotkin refers to Soviet foreign policy in the 1920s as "pretzel logic" - both participating in and working to overthrow the capitalist world order. Some might call this running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, and that is a recipe for downfall, though it usually takes a long time. "Pretzel logic" is an expression I first came across in the 1970s when it was the title of a splendid album by Steely Dan, the thinking rockers. But I didn't know what it meant then, and I don't think most people who bought the record did.

Still and all. In 1927, it was said by those who liked to coin such phrases "Moses took the Jews out of Egypt, and Stalin took them out of the Central Committee."

The first official (ie Soviet) biography of Stalin was published in 1927. It was 14 pages long.

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?