Monday, 30 December 2013

la quenelle

is a kind of cylindrical dumpling, speciality of the Lyon region of France, made with fish, semolina, vegetables or other ingredients. It's also, British football fans now know, the name for a Jew-hating salute. I've posted about the French comedian Dieudonne (the man responsible for "popularising" the gesture in France) before, when he was due to perform in Strasbourg. I noted in that post that Marine Le Pen, leader of the racist Front National party, was delighted for him to be godfather to one of her children, and if you look at a picture of him you can see why. Did Nicolas Anelka think nobody would recognise the gesture he made in front of the TV cameras? Or does he not care? The latter, I suspect - he wanted publicity to revive a flagging career. Well, this stuff is not something to play with. You can see why here. Now I didn't know what the quenelle gesture was until a few months ago, and I have never seen anyone doing it in real life - I hope not to - but in those pictures (follow the link above) you can see people doing it all over the world in front of Jew-related street names or buildings. Did no one stop them? Did no one protest? Would you if you saw it? Do you think people are going to think it's funny to do it in public? It has been said here in France that some British humour would be a better way of dealing with this than the "fevered" response in some sections of French commentary, politicians and media getting in on it all over. Well. Humour as a weapon against the Jew-haters. The cabarets of 1930s Berlin were so effective against the Nazis, were they not? In Lyon, where the quenelle gesture has been seen often in recent times, six young Jewish men are to go on trial for attempting to take vigilante ("justicier") action.

Should the quenelle gesture be banned? Was Anelka attempting to incite racial hatred? Dieudonne himself is likely to be charged, not for the first time, with incitement to racial hatred following remarks he made about a journalist on France Inter who challenged him. The journalist's name is Cohen.

Still think you can control them?

Saturday, 28 December 2013

segregation by...

much fuss and bother about meetings at universities being segregated by gender. Indeed, some of them are. I have no issues with a private, members-only or signup-only meeting being segregated in any way anyone chooses to. I reserve my right to join a women's club which excludes men. A private university too may segregate its meetings, it staff, its anything, in any way it chooses. But a public university which receives State funding is a public authority, and must therefore be constrained in a way private clubs and organisations are not, namely to conform to the prevailing values of the State which funds it. Some may have views about that. Some may question those values. That is another matter. Purportedly left-wing bloggers and writers like Laurie Penny refuse to condemn segregation by gender, so long it is promoted by Muslim organisations or individuals. They give as the reason that organisations such as the English Defence League, part of whose agenda is anti-Muslim, are often also misogynist in the statements they make -  "Women are like gongs: they should be struck regularly" - and because the EDL and similar bodies are largely composed of white working-class men they are therefore  Not Good People and are to be Looked Down Upon by posh girls like Laurie Penny and their Guardian-reading fans. Muslim misogyny is somehow better. Moral relativism. Intellectual incoherence. Segregation by gender may be OK, or it may not. I suggest that in a hospital ward it is a good thing. I suggest that in a theatre dressing-room it is a good thing. I suggest that in a public debate of any kind, organised by anyone at all, it is not a good thing. But that is just my view. If we are going to debate it, let us debate it clearly and properly. Let us not refuse to debate it, giving as the reason that organisations like the EDL are to be condemned. That is posh feminists ceding debate to the misogynists - and silencing women in the universities. OK for them. They went to school. Their daughters will go to school. No-one is going to cut their clitorises off. They can dress as they please.

I went to university in 1972, and attended a Women's College. Only a few years before this male guests were only permitted between certain daylight hours. In my time they were only permitted before ten in the evening. This rule was widely ignored. However, rules like this (and the existence of creatures called "moral tutors") were designed to control women. They were designed to reassure the parents of the young women who attended those colleges that those young women would not be permitted to have sex. That was all it was about. And the segregation by gender and covering and seclusion of women practised in many societies where Islam is the dominant religion (and not only there) is about precisely that. Control of women's bodies and their sexuality. As are the crude misogynist statements made by some working-class white men.

If you agree with the silencing, covering and mutilation of women, say so. Don't say that you refuse to disagree with it because some non-Muslim men behave in misogynist ways. That is stinking relativism.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

North Korea and the silliest propaganda

I have never been to North Korea. Well, not unless you count Panmunjom, where the tourists put one foot over that silly line on the ground. I've been there twice. The first time was in 1987, when South Korea was just coming out of military rule (the first democratic elections were in December that year). An American in the same tour group as me at Panmunjom (I think she was a missionary) said to the American military guide "What would happen if I tried to cross to the North?" He said "We would endeavour to prevent it, Ma'am." She said "Does that mean you'd shoot me?" He said "We'd endeavour to prevent it, Ma'am." The second time I went to Panmunjom was in 1999, when our guides were not American military but a South Korean tour company - the Cold War was over and the North Korean guards in their too-large caps just looked silly. But there were, and are, tens of thousands of troops at the border between the two Koreas, UN troops who are mostly Americans, and their job is to get killed if there's a southward invasion. It's hard to find out just how many US troops are there, for understandable reasons - the US Army 2nd Infantry Division is now the only remaining US forward deployment in the world - but most of the non-US military serving there are South Korean, and there are about 1,000 of them, a small proportion of the whole.

I've just read journalist John Sweeney's book 'North Korea Undercover'. This he wrote after a visit to the country during which quite a lot of secret filming was done, and a BBC Panorama programme (which I have not seen) was subsequently made. It is rather a good thing that he reminds us in this book of the fringe Marxist grouping the Workers' Party of Ireland , a big cheese in which was (and remains - he is still national treasurer in the Republic) Sean Garland. Garland made a number of visits to North Korea in the 1980s, and was implicated in alleged counterfeiting and money laundering by North Korea. The evidence against Garland was strong enough for the US to seek his extradition, but ultimately the Republic of Ireland refused this, and Garland, now elderly and unwell, remains in the Republic. This interested me because in the 1970s and 1980s many people in Labour politics in the UK had contacts with various Irish left groupings. Some of these contacts were really quite close. A Labour councillor in Reading, Kevin McDevitt, who died in 1988, used to talk openly of his contacts with people in Irish left groupings, and in particular about contacts with North Korea. He once offered to get me a North Korean bicycle when he knew of my interest in Korea.
Martin Salter, then deputy leader of Reading Borough Council, later Labour MP for Reading West 1997-2010, was a big fan of McDevitt's. He saw Kevin as a kind of political father figure, it appeared to colleagues at the time, and was rather starry-eyed at the image of McDevitt (mainly promulgated by Salter not McDevitt) of Kevin as a swashbuckling hero of the battle against British imperialism and occupation of Northern Ireland. It's certainly true that campaign groups like the Troops Out movement were a lot closer to the mainstream of the Labour Party than they would be today. Salter did not proclaim these contacts once he was an ambitious backbencher in the Blair Labour administration in the 1990s.

My own interest in Korea came about through language study and cultural interest. This led me to go to work for BBC Monitoring in Caversham, Reading, in 1984, and there I spent a number of years in the East Asia section, and a lot of that time working on the monitoring of North Korean media, especially the KCNA news agency, which is quite extensively quoted from in Sweeney's book. Thus the material he quotes was mostly edited by me. Of great interest to Sweeney was the BBC reports monitored from KCNA of Sean Garland's visits to North Korea and statements he made there. The East Asia editor of BBC Monitoring during the 1980s, and thus my boss, was of Irish origin, which may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that the first couple of KCNA reports on Garland's visits to North Korea were published by the BBC, but then editorial priorities appeared to change, and while I thought such reports were of interest, perhaps especially to government customers, my superiors had other ideas. Well, it's all a long time ago. But now that tensions are high again on the Korean peninsula Sweeney has seen fit to refer to these matters again, and he is right to do so.

In passing I note the name mentioned by Sweeney of one David Richards, described by him as a British communist with North Korean connections. I have been trying to research this person, but have come up with nothing so far. However, while I was at BBC Monitoring a person called David Richards asked for an informal visit to the East Asia section, and met several of us, including me. He was working in Pyongyang, he said, as an English editor for KCNA. This would have been in about 1986 or so. He wanted to leave, and was looking to recruit a replacement on behalf of his bosses at KCNA. He had previously, he said, been based in Harare, Zimbabwe. There the trail goes cold, at least for my research skills. Anybody else know about him? I wonder where he is now. I was quite curious about the KCNA opportunity, and might even have applied for it, but for family reasons did not. Perhaps just as well. I don't regret it. The next year, 1987, I was offered the position of English language editor for the Seoul Olympic operation, to have charge of their English-language output in the run-up to the 1988 Olympics and beyond. I turned it down, and that I am sorry I did.

Sweeney says the BBC should start a (North) Korean service, and staff it with North Korean exiles. So indeed they should. Sweeney undoubtedly knows, though he does not say, that serious thought was given to the setting up of a Korean language service as part of the BBC World service. It was serious enough to warrant the sending of a member of staff to Korea for three months, to learn the language (ha!) and look around for recruitment opportunities. Yes, readers, I was that person. And all very interesting it was. However, at that time the decisions on what languages the BBC should broadcast in (though not editorial content) were taken by the Foreign Secretary. At the time this was Geoffrey Howe. He said no. More or less as I was getting off the plane on return from Korea. When the 30-year rule allows release of documents about this in a couple of years' time I shall be most interested to have a look.

Let's talk Korea.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Nelson Mandela and hypocrisy

I know, it's not the kind of thing you're supposed to put in the same sentence. But it's Amnesty International's hypocrisy I'm referring to. They never adopted Mandela as a prisoner of conscience, although that is what he was. This is why they decided not to, and the position they took back in 1965 was at least a coherent one, and reached by an assembly of their members. It was of course based upon the decision to approve the use of violent means by Umkhonto we Sizwe in support of the ANC's objective of non-racial democracy for South Africa. In 2006 Amnesty adopted Mandela as an "ambassador of conscience", long after he had left prison and after he had been the first non-white President of South Africa. When the moment had passed. Amnesty is of course now a discredited organisation, for Jew-hating, and nobody much cares what that organisation thinks about anything any more.

I don't salute the memory of Nelson Mandela for his part in the struggle for non-racial democracy in South Africa. He didn't do it alone, and many people died in that struggle. I salute him though for his generosity of spirit, for his willingness to pass the baton of power on to others, lesser people than he was, which is the finest political intelligence there is, and for his promotion of forgiveness. It seems to be that it is in Africa that you find forgiveness and reconciliation. They are forgiving in Rwanda, where many of the population have much to forgive. In other places, Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, they don't seem to find it possible. Maybe they could learn from Madiba.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Central African Republic - a good intervention?

as you might expect, the Central African Republic is a lot better known in France than it is in other European countries. This piece gives a good rundown of what has been going on. Although it does have some yes-buttery, namely that France is doing it (the intervention) for uranium, that the Americans are behind the intervention (as if Obama's America would have the balls) because they want the deposed pro-Western president Bozize reinstalled - the usual stuff. The facts are these though - Bozize was kicked out in a chaotic kind of coup, and now Muslim militias are killing and terrifying the population, with Christian militias springing up in resistance and using similar terror tactics. About 15% of the population is Muslim. Sudan is known to be providing covert support for some of the Muslim militia outfits. France already had some troops there, and now it has a lot more. The UN has been talking about a peacekeeping mission, but no decision has yet been made as to whether there will be one.

Francois Hollande's France (and the tail end of the Sarkozy regime before it) has a pretty good record on intervention, unlike David Cameron's Britain, and especially unlike Obama's America. The rest of Europe are pussies by comparison. Bring back Tony, I say. But then I've been saying that since 2007.

pic: alJazeera

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

lies and the lying liars

you'd think, wouldn't you, that it would no longer be necessary for Reading Labour to try and pretend that they wanted Crossrail for Reading. But no. Here is a lying lie from the lying liar Bet Tickner. She says there was a campaign "spearheaded by Martin Salter MP" to have Crossrail extended from Maidenhead to Reading. Now back in 2005 when the Crossrail Bill came to Parliament, there was an amendment on this specific point. I had left the House by then, but watched the debate with interest. Martin Salter abstained. That's how much "spearheading" he was doing. Reading Borough Council did no more than tick the boxes on Crossrail. When consulted, which they were at regular intervals, they failed to lobby or indicate any wish to have Crossrail to Reading. Crossrail senior figures told me that themselves, but even if they had not done so the relevant paperwork was leaked to me from within the Civic Offices, and I have it still. Then leader of the council David Sutton and then lead councillor for transport John Howarth both refused to join me in meeting Crossrail, in 2004, to lobby for Reading as the western terminus. In Howarth's case in very rude language. So, Tory Tickner, as you continue to be known, you are not being very wise in having published a series of straight lies about Crossrail. There are those out here who know the truth, and those who do not forget.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

memories of a heatwave

I like books which anchor themselves to a particular time or place, not to describe it but to set it as the background and then use it as a kind of metaphor for what happens in the story. One such was by Tim Lott, who is brilliant, and it was set in 1987 and called "Rumours of a Hurricane". I missed the hurricane in England because, er, I was in South Korea that autumn. Which is a story of its own, and one I will tell. I have some tales to tell about the hurricane though too. If you haven't read that book, do, it's worth it.

The book I have just finished reading is by Maggie O'Farrell (the first of hers I have read) and it is called "Instructions for a Heatwave". It is a good novel about a family in crisis, or rather a family with secrets, as all families are, and how the secrets come out when one or more members breaks the circle of silence. It is set in London, but also Ireland and New York City, in the summer of the Great Heatwave of 1976. The characters, an Irish family uprooted and transplanted and dislocated, all of them in their various ways in crisis, are unforgettable. I would not be at all surprised to find this become a TV mini-series of the kind that has people discussing the boxed set.

Maggie O'Farrell was four in 1976, and so cannot really remember that summer. I was 22, and can. It was a hot summer like no other, and there has not been one like it in England since, although 2003 came close. It was a summer before desk fans and air conditioning, when it was normal for women, especially those past their first youth, to wear polyester dresses on a daily basis. Men did not wear shorts in public then as they often do now.

I was pregnant that summer, with my first child, a Fire Dragon in the Chinese horoscope, born in October in a year of change. Prime Minister Harold Wilson resigned - no one at the time knew why - Mao Zedong died, and a great earthquake in China killed many thousands. Taking water without permission became a criminal offence in England under the Drought Act 1976. It didn't rain between Easter and August Bank Holiday - or that is how I remember it. We lived in Bath then, and the river was so low that some of us walked across the river on the lip of Pulteney Weir. I was wearing an orange and yellow cotton dress. This is what it was like.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

bendy bones?

I've been a bit blocked on the blog lately, partly because when the great Norm left us I realised how much I had been trying to emulate him (without success), partly because of bullying by an individual who has not liked some of the content of my posts (the latter has been going on for more than a year) and partly because the time of year has affected me more than it usually does. Cold, dark days, and all that. Of course, every November and December is cold and dark here in Alsace - so why is this year worse than previous ones? Well, it has been worse than last year, because this year I had a cataract operation in September which stopped me swimming for two weeks, then other things, including a two-week closure of the outdoor pool, kept me swimming indoors if I swam at all. The local heated outdoor pool is a splendid thing, and I need to use it several times a week, especially in the winter - how else would I get vitamin D?

I've got very fair Celtic skin, and two members of my family on my father's side (from whom I got the skin tone) have had skin cancer, so I have always used sunscreen and protected myself from the sun, well before it was routine advice to do so. And also because I burn very quickly in strong sun. I now realise that this was probably a mistake. The body makes vitamin D by absorbing sunlight through the skin. For this the skin needs to be exposed. In Saudi Arabia, where there is strong sunlight all the time, a great many women suffer from vitamin D deficiency - because they are always covered up outdoors. It's nearly impossible to get enough vitamin D through diet when there is no sunshine - and the sun hardly ever shines in Alsace. You could only do it if you ate an Inuit-type diet consisting entirely of oily fish. But last year, when I swam several times a week outdoors right through the winter, I had good levels of vitamin D. This year I don't.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency? Various. Sometimes none. You get more colds and other infections. Mainly fatigue. A different kind of fatigue from that you get when you haven't had enough sleep or you've been working hard, physically or mentally. Last night I sat down to watch my favourite soap and immediately fell asleep. Like someone switching a light off. I woke up to the closing credits. I've fallen asleep at the dinner table several times recently. I have difficulty getting up in the mornings, for the first time since a brief period when I was about 15. And all my joints ache, not all at the same time though. When I wake up my first thought is "What is it going to be today? Hip, knee or wrist?"

So, something will be done. To the pharmacy for a supplement. Eat an egg every day and oily fish twice a week (hard to come by in landlocked Alsace where fish has never been part of the diet, food in shops in France being more regional and local than it is in the UK). But, most importantly, back in the pool. Even on the darkest winter day (I never swim early in the mornings or in the evening when it's actually dark at this time of year, although the pool is open then) there is some diffused sunlight coming through in the daytime, and a heated outdoor pool provides a unique opportunity to have more than the face exposed to whatever is available. So, don't worry about sunburn - it won't happen in winter anyway. Do worry about vitamin D deficiency. Bad for the bones, bad for the blood, and bad for the mood.

What about you?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Best Blessings of Existence 52

In which things look up for Emma B, but marital tennis is not played well.

Littlebury always got a good write up in the Best Places to Live features favoured by journalists (alongside items about celebrities with cellulite) in the August news graveyard. It won points for being quiet; unspoilt; surrounded by stunning scenery and at the same time thirty minutes from London on a fast train.

Local pubs and restaurants had character; the village green sported a charming duck pond that dried up in summer ,and Littlebury School enjoyed a national and international reputation.

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

John of Gaunt would have approved.

It was just the place to retire, acquire an education, or spend your husband’s money and as she fell into none of these categories, it was prison. Gridchester, by contrast, (and especially when memories were fuelled by a second glass of amaretto) became her Atlantis; a land of milk, honey, opportunity and like that island – utterly mythical.

But there was an element of truth.

Since graduating, her experience had been that when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions but as1988 began, good fortune, unlike lightning, struck twice.

At GC, she found herself the unexpected beneficiary of Selma Blaine’s breast cancer and early retirement.

The Principal; a skinflint of repute, calculated that it would make financial sense to pay her the extra allowance to lead Humanities. The Department would be one lecturer short – but no matter – they could all teach extra classes!

And I think you’ll find, said Alec Coverley, offering her the job, that everyone will be happy!

They weren’t; but after a month of wildcat strikes when she had to cross a makeshift picket line to get to her office, everything returned to normal; except that the extra money and additional responsibility was not normal at all.

It was utterly abnormal and she had never been happier. Perhaps she was a contender at last!

Paul’s enthusiasm was muted.

I worry, he confided to her mother, between mouthfuls of Victoria sandwich, that it’s going to be too much. She gets terribly tired as it is – isn’t that true Darling? The place is virtually a reformatory – VERY difficult kids – and then all that politicking in the evenings – something’s got to give and I fear (shooting her mother a doleful glance) that it’s going to be our two. Only yesterday Ness Ness said that she never sees Mummy (ruffling his daughter’s hair).

Oh dear, fretted her mother.

Now I don’t like the sound of that at all. No wonder Richie’s having so many tantrums. You’re never at home with him. I think you ought to work part time – at least until he starts school. Well, Paul – what about a jam tart?

This was rich coming from her mother; a woman who had returned to work as soon as was humanly possible, putting her only daughter into nursery a full term before the legal age. But Mother had morphed into Grandma and her ambition for that daughter had died with the birth of Vanessa.

She eyed the Victoria sandwich; stifling a desire to remove it from its cut glass cake stand and deposit it firmly in the middle of her husband’s face.

Her father cleared his throat and stood up from the table, brushing cake crumbs from his lap.

Very nice Flo – cake perfectly risen, eh Paul? And as for the job, let her take it (giving her a wink). At least there’s a salary – not like all that free teaching she did to help you out at Chudleigh! Now... just in time for A Question of Sport!

And he switched on the television; having launched a custard pie of the metaphorical variety at Paul and rescued the Victoria sandwich from possible annihilation. She helped her mother to wash up.

Paul did not like her new job; but apart from a few scathing comments to his family and the Nuttalls, could say little against it. Family finances were healthier; she paid a couple of the domestic bills and he had more money to squander in second hand bookshops and The Duke.
A holiday that was not to be endured in the company of mice and unspeakable insects in a French gite became a distinct possibility.

Her political fortunes likewise, were in the ascendant.

Following her letter to Duncan Musgrave, expressing serious concerns about the conduct of the Beech family, she was invited to attend for interview at The St John’s Ambulance hut.

Musgrave, flanked by two male assistants, similarly booted and suited, was an impassive figure with a hint of menace.

With no good reason, she formed the view that he disliked her and plunged into a stumbling (and she feared, unconvincing) account of Beech perfidy; the treatment of Clare Butcher – thus spawning a Tory MP in the making; the abusive drunken lunge in The Duke; the suspected black market trading and wheedling money from members to finance the nefarious operations of Red Heart.

As she was making these allegations, staring fixedly at a cracked window pane and avoiding the penetrating Musgrave stare, she became uncomfortably aware that apart from the treatment of Clare Butcher and aggression towards herself, it was just a jumble of supposition and conjecture that would never have withstood scrutiny in a court of law.

But this was not a court of law; it was a kangaroo court and her instinct was to destroy Lester Beech before he destroyed her.

Musgrave was non-committal; posed a few questions as to the precise location of the collection tin and the identity of the persons in closest proximity to it, thanked her for attending and then, by turning away and signalling to his colleagues, indicated that the interview was over.

It had been profoundly disconcerting and she reflected that on balance, writing the letter had been a mistake.

A Party meeting at The Duke was to prove pivotal.

She arrived with Gail, minus Hazel (whose attendance had declined since her separation from Martin) and Sylvia who, with husband Shaun, was suffering from shingles.

Perhaps they’re re-bonding after that Pelleroe business? suggested Gail optimistically.

She could not see that being confined to barracks, scratching sporadically next to a similarly afflicted spouse was the ideal new start for Sylvia and her husband, but nodded assent as they took their seats at a corner table.

The atmosphere matched landlady Pat’s funereal back room décor, and she noted that Duncan Musgrave was sitting at the top table, flanked by one of his Team inquisitors and a nervously twitching Fred Hoy.

A male voice bellowing swear words was audible from the main bar and she wondered which of the pub regulars had gone on a bender. Could it be Fatty? She fervently hoped that he would be banned.

It was not Fatty.

Duncan Musgrave apologised for the fact that Lester Beech had created a disturbance after being refused entrance. The assistance of the police had been necessary but (opening the door and peering round tentatively) he could say that the matter had now been dealt with.

After all, the Beech family were no longer members of the Party and could not be allowed to attend meetings.

He trusted that business would now be conducted in an open and transparent manner, after a successful Inquiry that had rooted out the rotten apples in Gridchester and elsewhere. Members who had assisted this process had performed a great service to the Party and their contribution to our politics would not be forgotten.

Fancy – Chair of the Party! enthused Sylvia.

And Gail the proper Secretary instead of pencil-sharpening for Peabody. This is a feminist revolution!

They were waiting to be served in the new vegetarian restaurant at The Jasmine Bay hotel after an invigorating sauna in the adjoining health club. The Malmsey Head evenings had been replaced by more varied pursuits at Hazel’s insistence; swimming; the odd yoga class (a disaster – whatever the lotus position was, it was a stretch too far); a women only book club at the cooperative, and now this.

Hazel had purchased tickets for next month’s all – female production of Macbeth (from a radical lesbian perspective) and everything was very different and uniquely dull. Since dispensing with Martin, the fish and the weight, she had become a fully paid up member of the Health Police and their outings had turned into a contest to see who could manage to sneak an extra glass of wine without incurring a disapproving lecture.

As Sylvia said:

Hazel was more fun when she was fat.

The strictures of Hazel Sweet (now Kendall; Hazel had reverted to her maiden name) notwithstanding; her own new role as Chair of the Gridchester North Party had come as a fait accompli.

After the Beech purges, Fred Hoy resigned and Duncan Musgrave gave a strong hint that the local Party (as evinced by the shocking abuse of Clare Butcher) was less than woman-friendly.

As Musgrave stressed ( tapping a flip chart by way of illustration), the socio economic priorities of Gridchester Girl were the key to electoral success; but the female component of the Gridchester Party was decidedly out of sync with the voting sisters.

This was a firm steer to elect a woman Chair; but the entrenched Party culture had attracted involvement from the wrong sort of women.

Maureen Booth and Cheryl Smithers were more suited to parties of the Tupperware variety and when Sian Norfolk (a student at GC) proposed her as Chair, there were no objections. Gail became Secretary; Hazel; Women’s Officer and Laurence Fernyclough Treasurer and token male.

The flower of manhood had been vanquished by the petticoat revolution

Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Paul greeted her elevated status with the usual irony and took to dubbing her Madame Mao; but many a true word is spoken in jest and the next six months ushered in a cultural revolution for the Gridchester Party.

We must start as we mean to go on!

pronounced Hazel, opening her briefcase and propping up the menu with a filofax.

And I’d recommend the falafel and adzuki bean salad – filling but not fattening if you get my drift!

Unfortunately, they did; exchanging glances and yearning for The Balti Bowl and its pickle tray. Freed from the shackles of pandering to Martin’s limited palate, Hazel might have been expected to embark upon a gastronomic splurge of gargantuan proportions – but had merely replaced the austerity of corned beef and tinned vegetables with dried pulses and all things wholemeal.

She had ordered a new range of vegetarian cookery books for the cooperative and the collected works of Rose Elliot had replaced the familiar tomes of Linda McCartney with their trademark vegetarian sausages. It was all very worthy and Hazel certainly looked good on it, but her heart was with Sylvia who commented trenchantly:

Life is too short to soak a chickpea; anything longer than five minutes under the grill and the kids create mayhem.

There was nothing for it but a secret binge on Geppetto’s pasta Alfredo with extra cream when Hazel left for work at the bookshop. The consumption of a second plate of garlic bread induced predictable feelings of guilt and when they left (after a very decent Chianti) each was a passionate advocate of The Kendall Plan to re-shape the Gridchester Party.

Paul initially balked at her proposed financial outlay on a word processor and answerphone and, not for the first time, she resented their joint bank account.

The necessity of destroying the monthly statement before her husband could deplore her regular expenditure at Next, Laura Ashley and Benetton was wearing – especially when such strictures did not apply to his own indulgence at antiquarian bookshops and visits to the Oxbridge colleges.

She also resented the expenditure from pooled finances that did not appear in any official document – on his secret stash – purchased from some source in Fairway and indulged, like a Victorian with snuff; at the end of an evening.

It was time to resort to desperate measures via a quick revision of The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort, but reprieve came in the unexpected form of her father in law.
Eric had signed a lucrative contract to write for The Gas; a sell-out paper, known contemptuously as The Comic by everyone from its Editor to the tea lady.

However, despite a decided aversion to words of more than one syllable, The Gas demanded a phenomenal work rate and Deirdre’s daisy-wheel typewriter was no longer fit for purpose.
So Eric embraced the technological revolution and became, at the age of 69, the proud possessor of a word processor and a cordless telephone system with separate answering machine.

Paul followed suit a week later.

Persuading the comrades to relinquish the St John’s Ambulance hut and The Duke for the women and children friendly environs of the Gridchester Community Centre was more difficult.

The union contingent – and even Shaun Mills and Ned Pitt - craved their pint in The Duke – and the proximity of The Duke for their pint - after meetings in the hut.
Neither was there a general clamour for the gender balanced child minding rota to enable women to attend meetings; or the insistence that crèche facilities be a pre-requisite of any venue booked for a special event.

But by far the most venom was directed at the new Women’s Society hosted by Hazel in her flat above the cooperative bookshop. Here, women members met to devise women-friendly policies; support potential women candidates for Party positions and local elections and recruit more women members.

It was a far remove from the Tupperware culture.

Duncan Musgrave was a fan.

The other men were not – including her husband.

Paul was not a Party member, but he was Chair, Secretary and Treasurer of the Lord and Master Federation - an organisation that required wives to grace the bedroom, kitchen and nursery instead of abandoning the hearth in favour of numerous meetings both professional and personal.

Matters came to a head in March 1989 when a week dominated by evening GC Management meetings concluded with a Saturday Women’s Training Conference at the Community Centre, addressed by Shadow Minister Alma Blenkinsopp and the ubiquitous Duncan Musgrave from the Sectional Team.

As she walked up the pathway to her house, her approach heralded as usual by a yapping Splosh, she reflected that they had pulled it off – just. The Conference was the first real test for the new women leadership team and had been dogged by difficulties from the outset.

Firstly, they had been forced to compromise over the crèche; due to male Party members (whose numbers included Ned Pit and Shaun Mills) discovering that previous engagements prevented them from staffing the rota.

Women’s Officer, Hazel was adamant that no female member should be deprived of even a minute of the programme because of the burden of childcare:

(They like the fun of MAKING them and that’s about the sum of it!)

but the men voted with their feet and they were forced to engage the services of a childcare agency worker at an exorbitant cost.

Secondly, the speaker, Alma Blenkinsopp MP was a less than ideal choice for such a groundbreaking occasion.

At 65, Mrs Blenkinsopp was coming to the end of her tenure in frontline politics; had supported local residents in their campaign to evict the Greenham women on grounds of poor hygiene and general rowdiness, and had opposed the national Party campaign against sexist language:

(I am a Chairwoman – not a CHAIR).

But beggars could not be choosers, and only Alma Blenkinsopp had agreed to waste a Saturday in a Tory stronghold – on the understanding that there would be full press coverage, including television.

The attendance register was similarly underwhelming. Female members of the Booth / Smithers variety, trickled in, and Mrs Blenkinsopp’s irritation at spreading her pearls before a sprinkling of 20

(I thought we’d have to haul them in off the streets!)

was considerably augmented as the scheduled press conference came and went without a single representative from the Third Estate crossing the threshold.

But then the hand of fate intervened by way of a horrific crash involving a black saloon car and two motorbikes 100 yards from the Community Centre. The media then miraculously emerged – as did Alma Blenkinsopp who secured her television coverage; bewailing the dangers of Tory city traffic management and pledging to raise the issue in the House.

So it had been a success - of sorts - but not in the way envisaged.

As she entered the hallway, a familiar, sweet smell assailed her nostrils, and her ears were assaulted by the mingled wailing of Richard, Vanessa and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

Paul and Martin Sweet were listening to the latter; Richard and Vanessa were squabbling over the contents of the Fisher Price house and the source of the smell was unmistakable.

Paul, and Hazel’s ex husband, were indulging in the secret stash at 6pm in full view of her children, who were tired, hungry and fractious. She scooped them up and shooed them into the dining room where she fed them pizza slices and a tray of oven chips.

The fall-out, later that evening, with the children in bed and her lounge finally free of a worse-for wear Martin Sweet, was predictable.

She had accused Paul of corrupting their children by exposing them to illegal drugs:

Vanessa’s seven – not seven months.

He had countered with charges of child neglect:

Why did you want kids if you didn’t want to look after them? Out FOUR times this week and the whole of Saturday!

She had attacked the Nuttalls; he had vilified Hazel:

Poor bloody Mart! Letting his hair down for the first time in years! Granny fed him on corned beef and potato salad – no wonder he needs a joint though you can see he’s not used to it – stoned on the first puff!

Love fifteen. Fifteen all. Fifteen thirty. The tennis match of their marriage.

Still later, when Paul had retired to bed, she finished off the dregs of a bottle of un-chilled Sancerre whilst watching the regional television news; shots of the crash and Alma Blenkinsopp speaking to camera. At the side of the screen, she caught a glimpse of herself in her grey linen skirt suit; clutching her new business briefcase- all buckles and gilt. She looked porky beside the diminutive Blenkinsopp and Hazel, whiplash thin in a trouser suit and brogues.

Hazel – who phoned excitedly – how fantastic was that?!

Not especially, against the backdrop of domestic mayhem; to include tending to Richard who had woken from a nightmare – and had covered his Batman duvet with vomit

A passive victim of secret stash fumes?

She did not tell Hazel about Martin. Hazel had sloughed off the domestic coil and it was fairer not to.

At the end of that year, in Littlebury; the warm glow attendant upon a third glass of amaretto did not shield her from the fact that she had certainly not shaken off hers. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Polanski and her

When significant other goes to the UK, which he does far more often than I do, he often brings me back magazines he has read and thinks might interest me. A while ago he brought a magazine from The Times. I subscribe to the Times on line, but I don't take the time to read everything in it. When you read on a device you click or tap on what looks interesting. When you read in print you turn the pages over and may stop to read something whose title wasn't necessarily eye-catching but which draws your attention in other ways. My attention was drawn, as they say, to an interview with one Samantha Geimer, who was being interviewed to promote her book about what happened between her and Roman Polanski when he was 44 and she was 13. It was rape, she says. Because she didn't want to do it, and said no. But she says that she wasn't as naive as all that. She knew better than to have the champagne and pills he gave her, but she took them anyway, and couldn't do much in the way of resistance after that. Not the first 13-year-old to do something silly and regret it, and she won't be the last. She now seems to see herself as an ally of Polanski's, and think they have both been treated unfairly - she feels she is obliged to be seen as either the pathetic victim or the lying little whore. She says she was neither, and surely she is right. She says she wishes her mother had not called the police, and she is right about that too.

In the 1970s Jodie Foster played a 12-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver, and nobody moralised. Roman Polanski himself had been going out at the time with Nastassja Kinski, who was 15. Woody Allen was dating a schoolgirl in Manhattan. I had a 22-year-old boyfriend when I was 15. OK, that may not be quite in the same league, but nobody, including my parents, thought it was child abuse. Parents probably would now. Then it was called "having an older boyfriend". The same is true of some of the prosecutions for "historical offences" against people like Dave Lee Travis and, probably, Rolf Harris. They weren't child abuse, and they probably weren't rape or sexual assault other than in a legalistic sense. Those men had young groupies come on to them and they didn't ask their ages. Most men would be more careful now. but a lot wouldn't. It's just that most men are not public figures.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Norm - the Times obituary

Here is the obituary of Professor Norman Geras, known as Norm, published in The Times today (£). I think it's fair, though it does not mention his humour and gentleness, nor his liking for country music, jazz, Jane Austen and lists. Two writers he introduced me to are Belinda McKeon and the late John Williams. I publish it here because since I posted about him when he died less than two weeks ago some readers have said they didn't know about him or his work.

Thanks for everything Norm. I miss you.

Norman Geras was a penetrating political theorist who found fame in retirement as a pioneering blogger.
In his scholarly work he made substantial contributions to the study of Marxism and of international ethics. He served his entire academic career at the University of Manchester, where he was head of the Department of Government from 1998 till 2002, and ended as Professor Emeritus of Politics.
He then made skilful use of the new medium of the internet to inform and entertain a much wider audience. In dismay at what he considered their failure to defend Western democratic values against totalitarianism, he broke with many of his former comrades on the Left.
His acute insights and coolly analytical style of argument were admired by columnists across the political spectrum, who grew accustomed to checking their opinions on topical issues by considering what he had to say.
Norman Geras was born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1943. He arrived at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1962 to read Law. On his first day he met a friend who was to read Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE); Geras had been unaware of the existence of this celebrated degree course and instantly switched to it. He graduated in 1965 with a first.
At Oxford he met his future wife, ­Adèle, who was studying Modern Languages at St Hilda’s College. She was to become an eminent and prolific novelist for children and young adults. They married in 1967 and moved to Manchester, where Geras took up his first academic appointment. He remained in the same department till his retirement in 2003.
His academic specialism was the ­theory of Marxism. He was steeped in its literature and contributed to it some notable and original studies. A forbiddingly abstruse type of Marxism associated with the French communist ­intellectual Louis Althusser became popular with European radicals in the 1970s. It stressed the purportedly scientific character of Marxist analysis. Geras was highly critical of this school and sought in his book Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (1983) to establish a humanistic type of Marxism, which took seriously human nat­ure and its capacity to develop and change.
Geras also wrote a study of the thought of Rosa Luxemburg, the chief theorist of the German far Left, who was murdered during the crushing of the revolutionary uprising of 1919. She had been prescient in her warnings of the dictatorial character of Leninist rule in the nascent Soviet Union.
Geras was at the time of publication associated with a Trotskyist organisation called the International Marxist Group. He set out to defend (as he would then have seen it) Luxemburg’s Marxist orthodoxy. It may seem perverse to Geras’s later admirers across the political divide that he would then have regarded this as a point in Luxemburg’s favour, but the quality of his scholarship was undeniable. He showed that Luxemburg had largely shared Lenin’s own pre-1917 analysis of the revolutionaries’ task.
Though Geras never ceased to ­regard himself as a Marxist, his political interests were wider and his views ­always more heterodox than the doctrinal rigidities characteristic of that school of thought.
In The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust (1998), he turned his attention to the great humanitarian evils of the modern age. He asked why such catastrophes as the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s or the ferocious xenophobic persecutions in Bosnia in the 1990s produced the phenomenon of bystanders — those who know that something terrible is happening yet are locked in a pattern of indifference. He proposed that the first task of politics was the “moral necessity [of] mutual human support and aid, the universal responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of others”. Any politics that excluded this primary duty to give aid and support was inadequate.
This conviction explains much of Geras’s post-retirement life, in which he became known to a far wider audience than he had enjoyed in the academy. In the digital age, political commentary could be instantaneous. Geras read some of the earliest political blogs and decided to start his own, called Normblog. He launched it in 2003 and for the next ten years posted to it almost daily. His principal interest was the ­humanitarian theme of his political philosophy: that bonds of human obligation do not stop at national boundaries. It led him to conclusions radically different from those of his former allies on the Left.
Geras had been a prominent member of the editorial board of New Left ­Review, the radical theoretical journal, from 1976 to 1992. He was appalled, however, by the attitude of much of the Left to the attacks of 9/11. While former comrades had typically interpreted these atrocities as a response, however brutal, to Western imperialism, Geras saw in Islamist extremism everything he reviled. Believing in liberal democratic rights, female emancipation and secularism, he supported the interventionist policies of Tony Blair.
He was one of a small group of left-wing commentators to support military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. 
A secular Jew, Geras was also distur­bed by an increasing tendency in Western commentary, not only on the Left, to smuggle the premises and language of anti-Semitism into ostensible concern for the just cause of Palestinian statehood.
A great deal of his polemical and ­intellectual effort was devoted to ­exposing the moral confusions of those who looked at the imperfections of democratic societies and fastidiously saw little to choose between them and anti-Western dictatorships. He helped to draft a statement known as the ­Euston Manifesto in 2006, setting out a set of principles from the Left that uncompromisingly attacked ideological apologetics for tyranny and terrorism.
Geras had prostate cancer diagnosed in 2003. It did not prevent him pursuing his interests and enthusiasms, which he rarely did in moderation. His remorseless blogging influenced and informed commentators who were close to his way of thinking, such as Christopher Hitchens (obituary, December 17, 2011 ), and many more.
He also used the medium as an outlet for other enthusiasms, among which sport was prominent.
He had run two London marathons and was a cricket fanatic who amassed a library of some 2,100 books on the subject. Having resolved in his youth that he could not give support to South Africa in Test match cricket, owing to his revulsion at apartheid, he gave it instead to Australia in preference to the old colonial power. His interest in games extended to devising his own board games, including one involving Marxists called (invoking a dictum of Marx’s) “The Point is to Change It”.
Geras and his wife moved to Cambridge in 2010 to be closer to family. His cancer returned this year. He is survived by his wife and their two daughters.
Norman Geras, political philosopher, was born on August 25, 1943. He died on October 18, 2013, aged 70

Wednesday, 23 October 2013


Zolitude is a place in Riga, Latvia
This year I have spent a great deal of time alone. I have never minded my own company, and over the years have been happy, for instance, to go to the cinema alone if I couldn't find anyone else who wanted to see the film I had chosen. I don't feel lonely doing that. When I was young I didn't have much understanding of or sympathy with girls who said "I can't go to that, I've got no one to go with". But of course, solitude and loneliness are not the same thing.

I have almost never lived alone in my life. I left home at 18 and went to university, where I lived in halls ("living in college" as we called it then where I went, in Durham). Just before I finished university my father died suddenly and unexpectedly, and I went "home" for the summer. And then got married, as did my two siblings soon afterwards. There's bound to have been a connection, but none of us has felt like exploring it over the years. We had two children each. My marriage and my sister's ended after some years (we did try), and my brother's has lasted, with some hiccups. Then I did live alone for a little while, but not exactly. My son lived with me, and by the time he went back to his father, at fifteen, significant other and I were setting up home together. We have lived together ever since, and have been married for 14 years. Now, significant other works in the UK every summer (we live in France) and this year was away for nearly three months. He is away again, for only ten days this time, teaching a half-term intensive course. And yes, I have been lonely. What to do about it? Not turn down invitations to go out, is most of the answer. I have been doing that too often in recent times, because I am usually happy at home in the evenings, reading and writing and so on. Today I am going to the cinema with a new friend, and this is a Good Thing.

Loneliness among old people is a great problem, at least in this Western world. I know old people who are cheerful, friendly and sociable. But they are in the minority. Health problems may cause some of them to be negative, but talk of symptoms can be a kind of hobby too, and one that does no good. My uncle, in his eighties, has hobbies, such as model plane flying - he used to go fishing too and he was part of a dance club, all people of similar age. He has had some quite serious health problems recently, but has remained positive and cheerful. I saw him two weeks ago at a family wedding, that of his grandson, and he was very much the laughing raconteur - he had his moment on the dance floor too. My mother, on the other hand, whose health is not bad, is relentlessly negative - but let's not go there.

Most of us don't have to be lonely. Some old people say they are lonely because their families never visit them. I say to them - maybe your family would visit you more if you were more positive when you did see them.

Let's think about preventing loneliness. Human beings are designed to live in groups. The others in those groups may not these days share our actual household, but we need the contact they give us. If we don't have it, we are likely to become bitter and negative. Don't let it happen to you, as I am determined it will not happen to me.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Norm again

This morning the Twittersphere and all the other 'spheres have had plenty to say about the late Norman Geras. I can't say as much or as well as they did, but I have my own tribute to pay.

Almost certainly without knowing it, Norm helped me to have the courage to speak up for what I believe to be right, even when everyone around me, Guardian-readers all, believed something different, and were incredulous or (often) malevolent if they heard a different view. As examples, the belief that human rights are universal, that differing cultural norms do not excuse, for instance, the mutilating of women and girls, that the deliberate killing of civilians is always a war crime. Most of the people around me for most of my adult life (I worked for the BBC for 13 years, was in Labour politics for 20, and now work for an international institution dedicated to democracy, human rights and the rule of law) consider themselves to be liberal, "good" people. But these same people, and you only have to read the letters and comments in the Guardian to see it, support evil and barbaric regimes and practices around the world that they would never tolerate where they live. Some of them marched in 2003 waving Saddam Hussein's flag. Some of them spoke up for the Taliban and the killing of Americans - even though they expected their own daughters to go to school. Many of them use Jew-hating language about the state of Israel. I don't presume to repeat the expression of Norm's views here - he is gone and we will not hear from him again, but his writing lives on. I can only say that when I knew that there were others out there who believed as I do that some things are just wrong, and who could express those beliefs with intellectual coherence and clarity - well, I managed to be a bit braver.

Norm was passionate about cricket, which I am not. He was a Marxist, which I am not. He loved Jane Austen's works, which I did not until something he wrote got me to see what she was about. He loved country and western music, and Western films, both of which I learned to appreciate (up to a point) from him. From time to time he recommended books, and I quickly learned that anything he thought would be a good read always was. He once had a competition on his blog, which was won by my significant other, to whom Norm sent a book token. I met him only once, at a Euston Manifesto event  in 2007. He wouldn't have remembered me, but I will never forget  him.

My heart goes out to Norm's widow Adele, whom I do not know, but who once took the trouble to recommend a hair product to me when I was Tweeting in rather tedious and querulous fashion about a trichological issue. The writer Sophie Hannah is their daughter.

Goodbye, Norm. Thank you.

Update: The Filth has published an excellent obituary here. Thanks to H for pointing it out. I would normally never go near that odious rag, but speak as I find.

Norman Geras

Very sad, and bereft (or bereaved) that Norman Geras has died, from prostate cancer at the age of only 70. He and I met through the Euston Manifesto in 2007, and it was to his blog and other writings that I looked for sanity, wisdom and rationality, and I found them there. I'll post again about him when I am a little less tearful. Just a thought though - now that most of us have contacts we follow on Twitter and are friends with on Facebook, but never or rarely meet in person, perhaps we are going to have more people to mourn.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Damian McBride, 'Power Trip'

Many pages have been blackened in recent weeks with remarks about this book. It seemed important to me to read it, as I spent eight years surrounded by the dark arts of spin, smear and briefing, scarcely engaging in any of them myself. My thoughts turned at the time to murder rather than character assassination, but I managed to restrain myself from that too. Such is politics. I confess myself a Blairite, which I was not when Tony became leader in 1994, nor when the Labour Government was formed in 1997, which election saw me into Parliament, one of precisely six Labour women not selected from an all-woman shortlist, though that is by the by. So the cohort around Gordon Brown during the decade covered by this book, 1999-2009, was unknown to me, both personally and in their various doings. No, comrades, I became a Blairite because of the Labour Government, and not the other way round. And especially because of the Chicago Doctrine after 1999, though again it took me a while, as a backbencher far from the inner circles of government, to understand the implications of that doctrine for both UK foreign policy and the world. But that again is another story, and not one McBride concerns himself with here.

The book is well written, and approximately the first two-thirds of it are utterly fascinating in terms of what they reveal about spin, smear and the dark arts in general. Not who was smeared, who briefed against and so on - anyone in politics who read the papers in those days could see in any story who was being briefed against and approximately by whom. Of course it’s different now, and in many ways more transparent, as we don’t have to wait for the next morning’s papers or that day’s Evening Standard to see the stories and the briefings and the latest poison in the diary columns - they get Tweeted in our faces every minute.

McBride explains himself very clearly at the very start of the book. He could not abide defeat. Not at all. If he couldn’t win by fair means, in college football or in anything else, he would win by foul. That tells you what you need to know about his tactics and attitude. It is clearly combined with immense energy (an underrated quality in politics: there are many who have failed for lack of it) and huge talent for dealing with information. I started my (so-called) career as a civil servant, not, obviously,  in the fast stream as McBride did, but as a translator in the intelligence services, and the obstacles to promotion for anyone who was not exactly like their boss and their boss’s boss, then as now, were almost insurmountable. But McBride came through that. And then let himself be politicised, while remaining a civil servant. And was brought down by Guido, says Guido. I think Dolly Draper had a hand in it, but hey, what do the details matter at this late stage. You could argue that the politicisation was not his call, but Gordon Brown’s. Maybe. But by their works shall ye know them.

I enjoyed the book greatly, especially for the honesty (a rarity in any memoir of a life in politics) and self-deprecation (ditto) and the wit. He says of one candidate that his political views in relation to same-sex relationships were “closer to Leviticus than Liberace”. I loved that. He exposes, intentionally or not, the Ed Balls doublethink: in 2000, when truckers were blockading Britain in search of greater subsidies for polluters, McBride quotes Balls as saying “We’re cutting duty … because it’s the right thing to do and it’s good for the environment”.

McBride sounds a little quaint sometimes when writing about those times, or perhaps in bad faith, depending how charitable you are minded to be. When little Fraser Brown was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, he says “a spin doctor today would say there was no public interest and demand an injunction”. He says “These tactics were largely unknown back in 2006”. Were they? Hmmm.

“The number of voters in their constituencies and councils who would never vote Labour again as long as George W. Bush’s wingman remained in Downing Street.” Oh, right. And the 2005 election? After Iraq? With Tony as leader? Eh, Damian? *sound of tumbleweed*

“Gordon … got [Tony] his final year in power … the unceremonious immediate ousting of Labour’s most successful leader [Harold Wilson won more elections. Ed.] would have been a terrible scar for the party to bear, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher’s removal affected the Tories for years afterwards.” No. The situation, and the parties, were different. What happened when Tony was removed was that there was no longer a Labour Government after the next election. Obviously. And that a lot of Blairite former ministers and henchpeople were cast into the outer darkness. And that the barking mad Cuba-loving Saddam Hussein fans in the Labour General Committees up and down the land felt happy and safe, in opposition once again. That’s it.

I didn’t know Gordon said this, according to McBride: “The truth might hurt you, but it’s the lie that kills you.” Ain’t that the truth.

Gordon as PM: “Gordon’s previous reliance on set-piece moments like the Budget [normally listened to in silence, Ed.], and the drawn-out decision-making that led up to them, was fundamentally unsuited to the fast-paced and usually random nature of events in No. 10”.

Bob Shrum, when Gordon was deciding not to go to the country in 2007, told the meeting, “Well, if the worst comes to the worst and you only get three more years, there’s a lot you can do in three years. Jack Kennedy only had three years.” Which, McBride seems to say, clinched the issue, and “Gordon walked out of the room and didn’t look back. And that was that.”

Hilarious too on Gordon’s general personal and especially sartorial ineptitude. Terrifying on the Milibands. Given that Ed looks likely at the time of writing to be the next Prime Minister. Be afraid. Be very afraid,

Thanks, Damian (we have never met, readers) for this book. Keep the royalties, and move on.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

peaceful protest

Here is publisher and blogger (and Tory) Iain Dale's post on the incident outside Labour Party Conference that led him to roll around on the ground in apparent fisticuffs with a protester. Let's face it, we've all done that at some point, haven't we? I thought it fair that Iain, a person I like, should get a chance to tell his version of events here - he chose not to publish the video of the incident, but I just felt I had to, everyone was having so much fun. Party conferences are plagued by these annoying and often bonkers individuals. Video The Independent.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Spandau Sweetheart

Here is the first of my stories, grouped under the title "The Girls Who Went Away".

Spandau Sweetheart 1971

RAF Gatow, Berlin, 1971

Rocking-Horse, Rocking-Horse! The siren sounds the alert, and then you'lll get the voice alert. Rocking-Horse. If you hear Operation Rocking-Horse it's for real. The Russians are here and there's a war in Europe.

It was sheet-change day on the base. The British Air Force wives took their sheets to a building with a kind of long metal counter, that reminded her of a slaughterhouse. Or maybe an operating theatre. Something vaguely medical, where creatures or people died. She had gone there with Olive, in whose house she was staying, two days after she had arrived. Now, a week on from that day, she wasn't going to sheet-change. She supposed Olive had wanted to show her around, help her feel at home. Or maybe Olive, with the three little girls to amuse and look after, in the long hot Berlin summer holiday, could have done with some help. But, she shrugged, she probably wasn't going to start now.

Much later she would think herself unkind for ignoring Olive, as she had. She got up late, ate the bread and preserves (Rose's Lime Marmalade was her favourite, and it went surprisingly well with the dark German bread) Olive had left out, and went wandering. Or sat around the house, idly picking up and putting down the little girls' reading and colouring books. She didn't talk to Olive. She was seventeen, and in Berlin for the summer, for reasons that were not entirely clear to her.

The British Air Force base was in outer West Berlin. Spandau was the nearest shopping centre off the base itself. You could get most things in the NAAFI though. The days were hot. The nights, too. Sometimes there were violent electrical storms, with bouncing balls of blue lightning and sudden, angry downpours. She had told her friends she was going to be “living in Berlin” over the summer. Most of them had said something like “Oh, that”, or, sometimes, “East or West?” with a smirk. People didn't travel, much, in 1971. She had saved up from her Saturday job, and gone to Berlin. Her father had driven her to Harwich, spending most of the journey, it seemed, wondering irascibly aloud why she had to take all these records with her. Vinyl LPs were quite heavy. She had taken along a dozen or so, because after all she was going to be gone for weeks, and how else could she have sounds? At the time she was into the Incredible String Band. She liked Barclay James Harvest and Mott the Hoople too.

She had taken the ferry to the Hook of Holland, and then the train. Just as far as Hanover, because although you could go directly through East Germany to West Berlin, you couldn't arrive at an Allied base from Eastern bloc territory. So she flew from Hanover. It was all terribly exciting and glamorous, and yet somewhere inside she knew that there was nothing at all truly glamorous about being a little grubby, and feeling a little sick, because Potato Puffs, and Mars Bars, and nothing else, had seemed like the right things to eat on the way over. She knew already, as they started their descent into Tempelhof, that she would invent a Berlin summer which would not be much like the summer she was about to have.

Tempelhof was a Nazi airport. She did not know this when they landed there, but it was. Albert Speer had had a hand in its design, and it had amazed Europe when it was opened, in the mid-1930s. It was still avant-garde now, in 1971, and would remain so until it closed, in the first years of the next millennium, when glass and swooping spaces began to be airport vernacular architecture, in Madrid and Manchester and elsewhere, and until airports began to be routinely named after people.

She had followed her brother to Berlin. She had spent most of her life following him, and he most of his ignoring her, or, charmingly, politely, tolerating her. She remembered another summer moment, when she had been perhaps five, and her brother perhaps eight, and they had been in the garden, and he had looked up from something he was doing and said to her, “Lovely sister, it would be so helpful if you just went away for a while. I'll see you at lunch.”

She was not stylish. Her brother often had girlfriends her age. Sometimes they were her friends, or her classmates. They were never the beautiful ones. But they always had style. She remembered a bright blue, rather odd-shaped jacket made of felt, that one of the girlfriends had worn. One of the plainer ones. She had accessorised it with an orange silk scarf, which should have looked ugly, but didn't. Seven years later, she would see a magazine feature styled exactly like it. She herself was not stylish, though. When she looked in the mirror at home she quite liked the way she looked. A mass of auburn hair, which made her look a bit like the girl on the cover of the Blind Faith album, white freckled skin, and very long legs. She had a pair of patchwork hotpants that year. Not the bib ones, those were just wrong: these were just patchwork shorts really, and she liked them, but she knew that all in all she was not stylish, and never would be.

She had followed her brother to Berlin. He had followed his girlfriend of the moment, who was called Magda and was short and rather plain, with straight hair and a pointy nose, and an underbite. Magda was Olive's daughter, and of course her husband Johnny's too. He was the Air Force man, and his job was the reason they were all in Berlin. Magda owed her exotic name to the fact that she was adopted, and it was the name she had come with. It had never been said where Magda had been adopted from, and she privately suspected that Magda was a by-blow of Johnny's, perhaps from earlier times in West Germany. Johnny had an underbite, too. The next child in the family was seven years younger than Magda, and then they went down in two-year stages, all girls. Their names were not at all exotic. They were Susan and Jennifer and Marilyn. When Johnny had been posted to West Berlin two years before, Magda had been just about to take her O-levels, and had been left behind to lodge with family friends. This too was exotic. Magda herself had invited her to Berlin. There had been talk of one or two others coming too, male friends of her brother's, at least one of whom she might have had hopes of, but at the last minute they had not come. So she was very much alone that summer. She didn't really mind that, she thought - it saved bother.

Her own name was Nicola. She didn't like it much. She knew several other girls called Nicola. All of them were her own age. There had been a brief vogue for the name before she was born. It had then disappeared. She didn't think it would ever come back. Nicole was good, though you probably had to be French to carry it off, but Nicola was no good really.

In 1971 the Wall had been there for ten years. It was there to keep the people of East Berlin from crossing to the West. Which too many of them had been doing for the government's liking. Berlin remained a city divided into sectors by the Allied powers, as it had been since 1945. The Wall was, in a way, a separate thing from what the city of Berlin was. It cut across Unter den Linden, so that the Brandenburger Tor sort of peered over the top of it. In the West the Axel Springer empire had its building right up against the Wall, so that those engaged in capitalist comings and goings might look down, as they drank their morning coffee, on no-man's-land, where the number of those killed trying to cross was growing. If they were there at night they might even see it happen. The guards had a shoot-to-kill policy.

The RAF base at Gatow was inside West Berlin, but only just. The Wall ran along the edge of its airfield, though here it was a wire fence rather than a wall. This was supposed to be a military courtesy - when Berlin was originally divided into sectors this had been a Russian base, and had been transferred to the British sector after some negotiation. It was widely thought by those who worked on the base that the wire fence was there to make a military incursion easier. If this happened it would attract the famous Operation Rocking-Horse alert. Most of the people who worked and lived on the base hardly ever left it - they were inside a wall within a Wall.

The river Havel meanders through much of southern and western Berlin. The city is green, at least in the West, and the parks and riversides are full of people on summer days and nights. She wandered them too, sometimes getting herself an ice cream, and then, daringly, a beer, at a cafe in a park. Although she went to pubs sometimes in England, and drank a bitter or a cider there, she did not drink much yet - and she had noticed that while in Germany you might often see a lone middle-aged or elderly woman with a beer, as you did not in England, you did not see a lone teenage girl. In fact you never saw teenage girls on their own. They were always in twos and threes and larger groups, chattering and linking arms, their quick-fire German snapping in the hot air. She did not speak German. But most of the families on the base spoke no German either. This was beginning to change. Quite a lot of the servicemen married German girls instead of bringing wives from England, and they had bilingual children. Some of the families stayed on after their term of service, and became German. But in 1971 this was still rare.

She began to ride the S-bahn, “Einmal Umsteige, bitte!”, which ticket gave her the freedom of all the public transport she dared use. West Berlin, in 1971, though the city did not know it yet, was approaching a crossover point. It was about to cease to be a bastion of capitalism, of creativity, of the alternative, of anything really. After all, Berlin was no longer the capital of Germany. The corridors of West German power were in quiet, complacent Bonn. The little creaking wooden advertising signs in the S-bahn carriages, (“Was trinken wir? Schultheiss Bier!”) and the swaying trams with their leather hanging straps were about to become quaint, as West European cities modernised in the long postwar process, created flyovers and motorways, and streamlined their public transport systems, which usually meant shrinking them. West Germany was doing some of these things, and of course the autobahns were a pre-war notion, but West Berlin was not.

She sat with her beer in the cafe in the park. She was wearing her patchwork shorts, and the backs of her legs were sticky against the wooden seat. A radio was playing inside the cafe, “That's Not The Way To Have Fun, Son”. Then, someone was speaking to her, in German. A Turkish kid, a boy who looked eleven or twelve. When he saw she didn't understand, he mimed a cigarette, with two fingers in front of his mouth. His fingernails were dirty, and his finger ends looked bluish under the dirt. His chest was thin. She shook her head. She'd smoked a cigarette from time to time in the past year or two, but she'd never yet bought any. The Turkish kid moved away, quite purposefully, and she watched him go. She thought he would stop by other people in the park and ask them for cigarettes too, but he did not. On an impulse she got up and followed him.

He walked fast, head down, and was quickly away from the streets which were familiar to her. The pavement got narrower, the sounds and smells changed, and she began to hear what she supposed was Turkish and Arabic as well as German spoken around her. The shops stopped being clean, well-lit supermarkets, and began to be dark-fronted places with meat and fat smells coming from inside, or tattoo parlours, or had military memorabilia and greatcoats in the windows. There were not many women on the street, now. it was still hot, but dimmer. As the light began to fade the Turkish kid ducked in somewhere, she didn't see where.

She stood for a moment, uncertainly. There were cigarette ends and greasy paper wrappings under her feet. She stood there, feeling suddenly very white, in her tie-dye T-shirt and patchwork shorts and bare legs. A woman laughed, somewhere behind her, and another woman's voice called out in Turkish, from somewhere above her. A neon light flashed on in a shopfront to her left. A narrow staircase beside it had Kino Club painted on the wall beside it. She was lost.

She turned back the way she had come, walking fast, not daring to run. Anyway, her feet were flat, and she had never been able to run. The flat wooden sandals she had on, which laced up her thin freckled calves, were no help either.

She was lost. She had turned right into the street she was in, and she turned right out of it instead of left as she should have done. She often did this, and her family said she could get lost in her own living room.

She walked as fast as she could, in the gladiator sandals that were not made for walking fast in. A sign for Spandau was up ahead. When she had been sitting in the park with her beer, a sign like that had been over to her right. But she couldn't see the park, or any trees at all, and the Spandau sign was for cars anyway, and she knew she would be wrong if she tried to cross the dual carriageway she could see ahead of her at the next junction. She stopped for a moment, hearing her heart in her chest and her breathing, noisy now in fear. Ahead of her there were more people, and it was lighter. People were walking fast, getting on and off buses, going home from work. But she couldn't speak German. She didn't even know how to ask a person if they could speak English.

Across the road, before the junction, was a little shop, a mini-supermarket. She could see a plump white lady behind the counter, with scarlet hair, smoking a cigarette. She could go in there. The lady might speak English. Or anyway, she could mime enough to make the lady understand that she needed the phone, and then she could call, and Johnny or Olive would come and get her.A sign flashed on next to the shop, Girls, and the neon sparked on and off, making the hourglass silhouette it showed wink crudely. Her breath rasped in her ears. She stepped off the pavement.

A hand grasped her elbow. She started, her heart still loud in her head. "Careful, girl, you get kill that way. I help you? You lost?" The voice was guttural, the English heavily accented, Turkish, she supposed. Hoarsely, breathlessly, she said “I need to get to Spandau”. “OK, no problem”, the man said. “I take you. My car near.” “No”, she panted, “just tell me how to get there.” She knew it was not a good idea to mention the base at Gatow, because not many people in the centre of the city knew where it was, and might not like it if they did. But Spandau, everyone knew, and she could get back to Olive and Johnny and the British authorities and safety from there. Spandau, Spandau.

The man was heavyset, with old-fashioned long sideburns and, something she had never seen before on a man, a gold earring. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and biker boots. She supposed he was about forty. She had never seen a man his age in jeans before, not anyone she knew, anyway. He had hold of her elbow now, and they had turned a corner. The bright thoroughfare with the bus-stops and the commuters in summer jackets had disappeared. She was gasping now, trying not to sob. There was a car. He began to push her in, not gently. For the first time, she pulled away from him, hard, and leaned her body away from his, ready to run. He pushed down on her shoulder, roughly, and she lost her balance and tipped into the passenger seat.

In the car, he closed the driver's door and slapped the side of her thigh, hard, and she moved her legs away. The car moved off, round corner after corner. It was dusk now, and the street lights were coming on. They stopped. She was paralysed with horror. It was almost as though she were watching a film, a film in which she herself was being taken away.

Spandau, please", she said faintly.
Get out of car."
Where are we?"
This Kreuzberg. My place. Get out.”

Then they were down some stairs, in a dark room that smelt of cigarettes and sweat and something like incense. He kept hold of her forearm. He sat down. He said, “You lovely girl. No worry, no frighten, I with you. You not hurt.” He ran his hand up the inside of her thigh. He put his thumb inside her shorts, just far enough, and with his other arm moved her, slowly, slowly, back and forth, then quicker. He was breathing hard, and then, with a profound exhalation, sat back.

Now, lovely girl, I take you Spandau. You my Spandau sweetheart.”

He dropped her off at the Spandau shopping centre. He said, “I find you again. Every day here, four o'clock. This good for you. My Spandau sweetheart. I lucky I find you.”

She told Olive and Johnny she had got lost walking around, and they told her to be careful and stick to wide streets and where there were plenty of people. She had thought her brother would have arrived that afternoon, but he had not. He and Magda had taken off to the Wannsee and would meet some others there, maybe go camping.

That night there was a storm. She lay awake as the thunder crashed, listening to the electrical hiss of the power lines outside her window, and to the plaintive chatter of the little girls in the next room.

This good for you.”

She was there, at four o'clock the next afternoon, and he took her again, in his car, to Kreuzberg. This time two other men were there in the shadows, watching. She didn't see their faces clearly, and she didn't look at them anyway. She looked at her own white arms and legs, there in the sticky gloom.

Every day she was there, in the room in Kreuzberg under the Wall, and every day she was there in the dark. Men were there, watching. Sometimes they touched her. Sometimes not. Sometimes they told her what to do. Afterwards she found Deutschmarks tucked into her tiny shoulder bag or the waistband of her shorts. She was glad to have them.

Especially as she hadn't done anything to get them.

Three weeks later, in the last days of August, she told Olive and Johnny she didn't want to wait for her brother any longer. She was polite, and thanked them for having her, and said she had changed her ticket, and thought it would be fun to fly all the way back. They didn't say much, but drove her to the airport. It was an evening flight, and they were almost late, because they had to pick up the little girls on the way, from a Kinder Party. This was something the German community in Spandau put on several times a year, to bring the Allied (no longer occupying) forces closer to ordinary German people in West Berlin. The little girls were deeply unimpressed with the Kinder Party. It was full of Germans, they squealed in some disgust, squirming and shrieking in the back seat, over the top on sugar and superiority.

It was only on board the plane, when the No Smoking sign went off and people around her lit up, that she realised that in all those days in Spandau she had never once seen the prison.