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.